You don’t need me to tell you that lockdowns have affected different people in different ways; but perhaps when the dust settles and we reflect on just what the hell this was all about we will recognise the type of familiar cultural resurgence often found sprouting from times of hardship and woe. If we were to focus on just music, and just the output from Welsh artists, we are already beginning to see surprisingly interesting creative surges from some from places we might not have expected. But also we may see bursts of energy from places we had no idea were in need of it. For The Joy Formidable there certainly seems to be a renewed sense of purpose in the sound of their fifth album, Into the Blue. Even if the album title sounds uninspired the music is not, and where their 2019 album Aaarth ticked a lot of boxes for fans of the band, with hindsight, it was a little lacklustre. Well, the lustre is back, as it has proven to be with many artists kicking their heels remotely with no tours to get lost on and no thousand other things to distract from the job of creating recorded music.
The Joy Formidable are a Utah band now, the rolling ruggedness of north Wales exchanged for the open plains, undulous mountains and loose vowels of the Great Midwest. To say the songwriting of guitarist and singer Ritzy Bryan has become more contemplative over the years would be to perhaps undersell the urgency and hardness of the sound TJF have retained and invested in, but there is a sense that the sonic reverberations embraced and nurtured by them have some relationship with the landscapes they’ve placed themselves in. As Bryan says on her recent blog, “I’ve felt a little quiet and contemplative this week, wanted to spend some time alone, play guitar, stare at the mountains, those kind of days. I’m a lot kinder to myself in those moments, more attentive to how I’m feeling, less judgemental than I used to be. I’ve been pushing through with books & music.” Into the Blue sounds like it comes from this perspective.
That’s not to say the record doesn’t involve rage. TJF wouldn’t be TJF without that gutsy snarl. The guitar sound remains glorious and big, but there is more of an attention to the expansive riff than we found on Aaarth, something more like their earlier songs. Bryan’s vocals feel repressed, quiet, longing, buttoned up, like Sarah Nixey or, even more literal, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Bryan’s whispered wordplay, always building to some euphoric moment of emancipation, interlocks for an arresting texture with that of bass player Rhydian Dafydd. But vocally this is Bryan’s record, who has reached the vocal maturity she has always promised. There is a crisp attitude in her delivery; “Chimes” has all the authorial confidence of Chrissie Hynde, and the Gainsbourg whisper is difficult to shake throughout. The youthful punch of The Big Roar (2011) may still be making moves on Into the Blue, but this is also perhaps the moment where TJF found the clobber in which to move on.
This is an album full of rich little turns, alcoves of melodic rock. The guitar work is now unabashed, and there are flashes of Muse, Mars Volta, and Queens of the Stone Age. No hiding the influences. You can’t help but get caught up in it; can’t help but strut the strut, pout the pout. It has that lovely spacious sound that used to sound like Kevin Sheilds with more oomph but now sounds like a conversation between band and mountain range. “Sevier” – the most QOTSA-y track on the album – epitomises the intensity perhaps missing on Aaarth. “Gotta Feed My Dog” is an epic that brings Gainsbourg most easily to mind. “Back to Nothing” has a beautifully sentimental riff but brings it up with such verve it could be a Bond song. And then there’s “Interval”, an utter triumph of a recording that contains so much loose energy – not to mention a poignant, pensive perversity – that it would have sat well on a Bunnymen record, or perhaps in the central reservation of The Cure’s Disintegration (1989).
Into the Blue marks a return to form of a band that, before Covid, I wasn’t aware had slipped down a rung. But the last eighteen months has encouraged focus, for listeners, critics, as well as artists. This, if there is to be anything taken from the turmoil, is a good thing. And from it The Joy Formidable have produced one of the best albums of the year.
Into the Blue is available now
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, and broadcaster. He is editor of Wales Arts Review.