It’s hard to assess an album right now without the clutter and confusion of this unsure time seeping into the impression and coloring the music with something that wasn’t there to begin with. But the lyrics and sweeping orchestration of indie-pop band Circa Waves’s newest album Sad Happy is founded on that sense of confusion — the perpetual millennial and Gen-Z condition of having one foot in a happy place and another ready to fall into the void at a moment’s notice. For an age group who has been through multiple recessions, an aimless administration and now a worldwide pandemic before the age of 30, we’ve never expected stability. This year seems to be another crazy obstacle in a line of them; it is surely the most intense we’ve faced, but it isn’t the last.
There is no way Circa Waves could have known this would happen, but this record was made in less than a year after their April 2019 full-length release, What’s It Like Over There?, and the feelings are fresh. The past year has been a rollercoaster of emotion, leading some to christen 2020 as the year we’d get it all back together, but it seems this has fallen through in many ways. However, hope still lingers alongside the sadness of the present, which is the driving essence of Sad Happy. Circa Waves built the album in two parts, releasing the first side, Happy, in January, and the full version this past Friday. Though we are all subject to the automatic shuffle function in this day and age, I’d say it’s important to take this one side by side, or at least in order. The group has obviously put a concerted effort into separating the Happy and Sad sides by mood while maintaining a continuous thread of emotional turmoil throughout.
The separation between each side isn’t stark, but rather weaves the same base level of yearning into different methods of coping. The Happy half is a perfect soundtrack for when you feel confused or lost and the only option seems to be getting drunk and running wild in the streets. It’s a fractured happiness — not butterflies and rainbows and car commercials, but dancing alone in clubs, wondering why you’re there in the first place. First single and record opener “Jacqueline” thuds on with a shuffling guitar riff and energetic vocals from frontman Kieran Shudall, establishing the group’s familiar brand of pop/rock fusion from the very first note. The songs on the first half of the record have been in the world for months, settling into their listener's ears with its mix of unease and an f-the-world mentality that suits Circa Waves’s style so perfectly.
“Sad Happy,” the introduction to the record’s second half, is arguably the standout of the entire effort. It soothes while energizing, the bubbling synths of the chorus supporting each languid verse. The song, and Circa Waves’ discography up to this point, is marked by a mesh of the British indie rock sound familiar to groups like Arctic Monkeys and the embrace of digital production similar to Two Door Cinema Club. Listening to Sad Happy feels like listening to the “British Indie” Pandora radio station in 2013, but with a twist of sadness that could only be native to this time and place. It’s that mix of both nostalgia and bitingly fresh insight which makes this double album so interesting to listen to during such a confusing period, as the whirlwind of narrative and sound takes each listener on a ride through everything they are able to feel.