It’s rare to see a band debut with an already defined and unique sound, but that’s what Glass Animals did with their first album, Zaba, two years ago. Infusing smooth indie electric beats with eclectic noise, the UK foursome sounded almost like if Alt-J had spent a lot of time in the forest and got really into the bongos. Zaba catapulted Glass Animals to a two-year stint of global tours and festival sets, leaving them with some bumps and bruises, a treasure trove of anecdotes, and a sophomore album to show for it.
True to form, Glass Animals pack just as many sounds into How To Be a Human Being as they did Zaba, this time going beyond background noise and bringing the strangeness to the foreground. Hyperactive flutes pipe along the core melody on ”Youth”, while clips of wayward conversations bookend several tracks. “[Premade Sandwiches]”, a 36-second a capella rap about the banality of contemporary consumption, is a testament to the band’s hesitance to pigeonhole themselves. Of course, the album still features plenty of indie electronic grooves (see “Cane Shuga” and “The Other Side of Paradise”), but these aren’t always its strongest points. The most enticing track, “Season 2 Episode 3”, owes its appeal to an undeniably clean hip-hop beat and smooth hi-hat taps reminiscent of early-2000s R&B.
The clearest departure from Zaba on this album is, as the title might suggest, the humanity. Where their first album displayed a diversity of sound, How To Be a Human Being expands from eccentric instrumental choices to the eccentricities of life itself. Many songs conjure unique characters and place them in their element. There’s the basement-dwelling loner in “Life Itself”, the loveably lazy stoner girlfriend in “Season 2 Episode 3”, and the murderous wife in “Mama’s Gun”. Vocalist Dave Bayley slips seamlessly into these characters, fully immersing the listener by offering details like “a cookie as a coaster” and “codeine coca cola.” While Bayley narrates, each instrument bolsters the scene, adding dimension and teasing out thematic elements. As one character laments the voices in her head in “Mama’s Gun”, a chorus of female voices echoes behind her. The flute used so insistently on “Youth” returns here, stripped of its drive and repeating a bare, taunting melody.
If the bulk of the album is a dizzying road trip through sonic space, the descent back to reality is a slow one. “Poplar Street”, the record’s penultimate track, tones down the ambient noise to shed light on a Red Hot Chili Peppers-worthy guitar melody and a wistful tale of wayward boyhood. The lines between songwriter and character noticeably blur here, and it’s hard to tell how much of the song is about Bayley himself. Those lines become almost undecipherable on closing track “Agnes”. Here, the characters bend to Bayley’s lyrics and a melancholy piano, both dripping with emotionality of firsthand experience.
What all this adds up to is a clear departure from Zaba, but not a total abandonment of it. Two years of touring took a musically adept group and stuck them with a heavy dose of life experience. While that might inspire some bands to completely change course, Glass Animals chose to stay true to their core sound, holding on to the pieces of what they’d seen and incorporating them into the album. How To Be a Human Being might lack the tight cohesiveness of Zaba. The tracks flit between genres with little regard for thematic continuity. Still, the album makes up for that absence with a barrage of raw humanity. All the stories, sounds, and characters come together to form an album that plays like a colorful collage of life: It doesn’t flow perfectly, but maybe that was never the point.
Essential Tracks: “Season 2 Episode 3”, “Mama’s Gun”, “Agnes”