by Tom Noonan
Unraveling, the third and latest release from Scotland natives We Were Promised Jetpacks, starts in the sonic equivalent of a wide shot. Cosmic synths rise and sweep over something massive, possibly a moon, maybe some kind of starship. You see constellations and hear Muse and M83. Lead singer Adam Thompson starts singing dreamily about planets, and you think about Stanley Kubrick and confirm your location. This is their space record, you think, before trying to come to terms with what exactly that means. Then, once you’ve finally gotten your bearings, the song, which is called “Safety in Numbers”, devolves, or, more thematically appropriate, unravels into something completely different.
For the most part, the rest of Unraveling operates very similarly to “Safety in Numbers”. Songs are constructed around the familiar only to end somewhere strange and, more often than not, doomed. The familiar components are mostly lifted from the past couple decades of radio rock. There’s a song called “Bright Minds” that sounds like Miike Snow remixing Sublime’s “Summertime”. There’s also one called “Peace Sign” that treats a Foo Fighters riff like a stencil. But both of those ideas only last for about a minute of their respective songs. It’s where the band takes them that ends up giving the LP all of its life.
A couple of weeks ago, I got a chance to catch up with Michael Palmer, the band’s guitarist, to talk a little about the record. “We were kind of [on our first two records] deliberately keeping it very loose and raw and, like, instinctive,” he tells me. “And this time we went for kind of tighter and focused and words like that.”
The band’s newly acquired attention to detail isn’t just noticeable; it’s jarring. Before Unraveling, We Were Promised Jetpacks built a reputation on their speed of strum and brogued yelps, so the precision of the new record in many ways sacrifices the band’s old identity for a chance to take a shot at something broader and more sonically insightful. “We did want to try and make [the new LP] a bit more… interesting,” Palmer say of the change. “I don’t want to use the word ‘interesting’ cause, you know, when someone sees a band they don’t like, they say, ‘Oh, that was interesting’, but I mean it in a good way.”
Unraveling is certainly interesting. It’s also provocative, possibly unintentionally so. The sources Palmer and his band mates seem to be drawing from, such as Imagine Dragons, the Foo Fighters, and even Muse, are all bands that are given relatively little critical thought but happen to make some of the most ubiquitous rock music in a time when rock music is a essentially a pop afterthought. We Were Promised Jetpacks aren’t bashful about their consumption of this type of junk food, but the provocation comes along when they decide to try and digest it while still recording. They play until the logical conclusion, until all the sweetness and good vibes give way to storms of violent indigestion. Just about every song seems to end with a funeral.
But before that, the band has a whole lot of fun pulling back the curtains they painstaking assembled in the studio. A few songs give us about three or four big reveals, and all of this intricacy took some time to get right. “We wrote [the record] in a few months,” Palmer says, “but then spent ages really, like, fine-tuning it and kind of talking about it and working things out. We’d have a song that was fine and say, ‘Well if it’s fine, let’s fix the things that make it just fine and keep what makes it good.’”
Palmer also noted the contributions of the band’s newest full time member, long time friend of the band and keyboardist Stuart McGachan, as a key part of the renovations. “It was the four of us writing songs for so long [before McGachan joined],” he says, “that having a fifth person in the room writing songs was just enough of a change to refresh everything, I think.”
Out of those sessions came the band’s first truly fascinating and critically-minded record in Unraveling. It isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. They’ve repurposed that rawness from the first two records and fashioned it into a beating heart for their new machine. They’ll be taking it for a spin at the Union Transfer on Friday, November 21st.