Listening to the recording of a gig you didn’t attend is an odd experience. If the record doesn’t work for you, you find yourself wondering if you’re missing something those present would have experienced. If you enjoy it, you’re liable to feel sad that you missed the gig in question.
Either way, live albums are inherently a sort of failure.
In trying to recreate and capture the live experience, they reveal the impossibility of that task. The range of senses through which you experience a concert is reduced to one, like a three-dimension picture being crudely rendered down to two. The sound of a crowd can’t replicate a crowd.
It Won’t Be Like This All the Time Live falls firmly into the second of the categories mentioned above. But its very quality also acts as a barrier of sorts. You will love this record (if you have any sense), but also wish that you were watching them live in concert. Listening to the album during lockdown only heightened this for me. The chorus of audience cheers that rises before the band emerge at the beginning of this recording brought on a Proustian rush that almost reduced me to tears (actual tears came later in the listening). It was like someone saying this is what we used to be able to enjoy. Of all the ways we have been affected by lockdown, the inability to attend gigs is low down the list of severity. But music hits you on an emotional level and trying to respond objectively and retain perspective is perhaps an impossible task.
Despite spending two paragraphs outlining the inherent flaws of the live album format, I can happily say though that this does as good a job as an album can do of capturing the live experience.
It is full of the contradictions that make the band so brilliant – muscular but delicate, atmospheric but also intimate, rich but raw.
The thundering drums, distorted guitars, atmospheric synths and subterranean bass lines fill the recordings. It feels like they have even more space to breathe here than on the studio recordings – you can almost feel the sound filling the rooms theses gigs were recorded in. As on their other records, they blend elements of shoegaze, post-punk, noise and indie to thrilling effect. Tying it all together, as usual, is James Graham’s voice. It can be delicate, almost whispering, when he wants it to be – particularly in the early stages of their devastating cover of Frightened Rabbit’s ‘Keep Yourself Warm’. Elsewhere he howls plaintively, pushing it to its limits. It is the band’s emotional lynchpin, and this is particularly the case in the rawness and immediacy of the live setting.
The career-spanning setlist makes a compelling argument for their song writing being of as high a standard as their performance. Newer tracks like ‘Videograms’ sit comfortably aside older cuts like ‘And She Would Darken the Memory’. A powerful blend of visceral imagery, unanswered questions and barely contained emotions runs through all of these songs. They are never repetitive though – fresh material is wrought from familiar ground. It’s hard to know how the band will be looked back on 20 years from now, but if there’s any justice they will be revered as one of the finest of this generation.
I last saw them live supporting Mogwai in 2010. They were a thrilling then and have only improved in the intervening decade. Whilst this is a difficult listen in many ways – as a document of gigs I missed out on, and a symbol of a communal activity we are currently starved of – it is also a beautiful one. If you were unfamiliar with their work, or previously unpersuaded by it, this is as good a place as any of their records to begin to appreciate their greatness. As for which song actually made me cry, listen
to the record and find out for yourself!
Words by WIll Collins.