“Oh, it’s this one on again,” Stealing Sheep bemoan at the opening of ‘Jokin’ Me’, the lead single from their new album Big Wows. “It’s a re-run repeat, I’ve seen this before, I know how it ends.”
The rest of the track’s three minutes and thirty-six seconds sees the Liverpudlian trio brushing aside cliches and pop culture tropes in search of something more meaningful while leaning hard into the milieu of electro-pop and all the garish vibrancy that goes with it.
It’s a dichotomy that runs throughout the album, and a discrepancy that leaves something slightly unsettling underscoring a very decent pop record.
Big Wows is built on a foundation of diamond-edged synth pop in the mould of School Of Seven Bells, adorned with Delia Derbyshire-inspired symphonic tinkering. It leaves little space for aesthetic warmth, but has little need for it, relying instead on digital dazzle and straightforward, danceable compositions.
It’s compelling in its likeability and polished enough to be quickly impressive without eventually becoming sterile. The robust rhythmic intensity of ‘Show Love’, or ‘Jokin’ Me’, makes it quickly engaging and gradually addictive. Atonal, multi-voice track intros and recurrent wonderings about identity serve to show Stealing Sheep to be thoughtful, curious musicians seeking out a broad palette of influences. Keyboard flourishes and space-age harmonies abound and, from a distance, it’s easy to cast Big Wows as a pleasant enough example of how pop music can be done well, for adults(-ish).
Underneath all this, though, the trio seems preoccupied with the pitfalls of a consumer culture obsessed with memes and cliches. Bubbling beneath the surface, it seems, is an underlying disdain for certain pop culture tropes.
The band are weary of everything being the same, on ‘Jokin’ Me’ cycling through a list of romantic platitudes – nights out, dancing, sunset rendezvous at the docks, weekend getaways – when what’s really sought is something meaningful. On the title track they seem similarly unimpressed – “Is this the big, big, big wows? Is this what it’s been about? Just big wows?” – before going on to wonder if this offers any kind meaningful satisfaction. The album’s cover, replete with lens flare and glitter and glossy coiffures, makes it hard not to see it as a sarcastic comment on modern-day triteness hiding in plain sight, looking not that dissimilar to the poster for Andy Samberg’s excellent parody ‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’.
Stealing Sheep seem to be demanding more than more of the same, asking whether we’re fooling ourselves revisiting the same old stories over and over again and telling ourselves we’re moving boldly forward.
But elsewhere, familiar pop-culture motifs are the supporting joists holding the album up, the insulating material used to warm the record’s chillier rooms. ‘Jokin’ Me’ comes after a track about showing love and followed by tracks about looking for love and talking about love. ‘Just Dreams’ touches on familiar stories of unrequited love. ‘True Colours’ delivers a fairly routine mantra for confident autonomy – “You’re the only one that can show…your true colours.”
All of which is fine. There might well only be seven original stories. Pop music is, to some minds, a game of identifying transient trends and serving them up to an excitable society that wants to feel both witnessed and instructed in the same breath. Big Wows is fun, and makes you want to put your worries on hold, and stays in your head. But it does so by pushing well-worn buttons, all the while seeming to demand something new.
Is this a record that wants to revel in electro-pop’s bombast, using big synths to tell towering and timeless stories of love in a contemporary language everyone can recognise? Or is this a record that wants to undercut the bombast that’s overwhelming society, making it believe in cliched acts of romance and talking in the sort of grammatically cringing colloquialisms you might switch buses to avoid overhearing?
BIG WOWS BY STEALING SHEEP IS OUT NOW VIA HEAVENLY RECORDINGS. GET IT HERE.