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Album Of The Week

Star Spangled Bangers: Big Wows By Stealing Sheep
Anna Rahkonen , April 25th, 2019 09:03

For their third album, Liverpool's Stealing Sheep blow up the pop form to bold, voltaic proportions, finds Anna Rahkonen

The opening song ‘Show Love’ starts off the album with the sound of something being cracked open – something fizzy, with bubbles and foam oozing down the sides before the song bursts apart, revealing a pure, shimmery electro-pop treat. This fizzy thing, the uninhibited pop splendour, has been bubbling beneath the surface of Stealing Sheep’s music for a while. 2015’s Not Real offered a light crash course in synth pop. But it frequently clung to reflections of their earlier, more folksy sound. Not anymore. Big Wows sees the group shining up their look and sound, entering a new phase with confidence and ease. This is what makes Stealing Sheep so thrilling to listen to and even more thrilling to follow: the blend of their respective, eclectic tastes, and their collective growth towards a stronger, brighter aesthetic makes for a fascinating evolution.

‘Show Love’ brilliantly sets the tone with a twinkling blanket of sounds beneath cryptic, wide-eyed questions: “Do you think it all leads up to something? Do you think we’ll make it if we try to change?” Perhaps these are directed towards a potential partner (or a one night shag). Or perhaps there’s a murkier point being made here, an earnest guess as to what to make of the perils of our times. ‘Back In Time’ features a deep, lumbering synth akin to that of The Knife’s ‘Heartbeats’. It sways in and out of the track, adorned with fluttering vocals and an urgent, repeated exclamation, “This is love, this is reality.”

Each song packs a shade of banter, but never sacrifices truth. The title track ‘Big Wows’ illustrates a common scenario, maybe a friend encouraging a risky turn of events on a night out, “Come on she said / it’s just a little bit of fun, she said”, followed by a deep stare in the mirror, a moment of pointing at yourself and asking, “Is this what I want? / Is this what I dreamed about when I was young and I was so naive?” Guided along with a sticky bass line and neatly placed steel drums, it helps remind us (perhaps begrudgingly) that moments like these indeed are the “Big Wows”.

The shining jewel though is the first single from the album, ‘Joking Me’, an absolutely electric banger that’s dripping in sarcasm. You can practically hear an eye-roll coming through each layered murmur – and Becky Hawley’s cleverly punctuated “Whot?” in particular. Emily Lansley’s work on the bass drives the song with an incessant, bobbing force, complementing the glib call-and-response from Lucy Mercer and Hawley, “Let's book a flight, get away for the weekend / You gotta be joking me”. A pop song like this, with a brassy schtick and a defiant “step off!” energy isn’t a novel concept; they’re often clichéd beyond a discernible sense of sincerity. But when crafted with laser-focused style, paired with Stealing Sheep’s trademark rhythmic, tongue-twisting lyrics, they sure can be a hell of a fun time.

On Big Wows, the Liverpool trio haven’t abandoned their instruments altogether, but rather have expanded upon their signature three-part harmonies and talent for knotty, ghostly melodies by adding lots of synths, drum machines, glitches, and fun electronic blips. There’s an impressive collection of producers’ fingerprints scattered all over, including those of Marta Salogni (Björk, Kelela, Insecure Men) and Ash Workman (Metronomy), contributing to this tightly wound collection of bright, unfiltered pop. It’s a natural progression for the trio really; Stealing Sheep have always been a bit playful, never sacrificing wit or charm for a modest thrill. But all modesty is out the window here – Big Wows is a shock to the senses, overflowing with smart, polished, neon-tinged fun.

Stealing Sheep are in good company, neatly lining up against the abundance of smart, introspective, dance floor-ready pop that tense times seem to breed. Even in the charts, pop isn’t really so much about living forever or shooting the sun anymore, but rather about placing a magnifier on our looming mortality, exploring life’s micro-interactions and unsung identities, all tied up in an increasingly apocalyptic world. Big Wows exemplifies these modern traits well, cheekily narrowing in on ephemeral feelings of millennial disarray and intangible truths.

Amid their task of blowing up the pop form to bold, voltaic proportions, Stealing Sheep are packing a new punch in more ways than one. Paired with their fresh, candy-coloured sound is a matching new image, exemplified through the glittery album art, a series of collaborative 8-bit music videos with artist Pastel Castle (Emily Garner) and their recent live performances. Donned in matching gold sequined jumpsuits both on the album art and on stage, they’ve got the urgency of Devo with an organic, living heartbeat beneath it all. This goal may have been on their agenda for some time, as Becky Hawley foreshadowed their transition into this new era in an interview with the Quietus in 2015, “It is still all evolving as we haven't got a definitive image. But it is something we are genuinely into – looking at the visual aesthetic and how we can make that complement the music.” They’ve made a drastic but smart move here, ushering in a new freedom to play in the dynamic between the natural and digital, and it all feels like a bit of a knowing wink.

Big Wows is a risky, but remarkable move for the trio – even the weaker songs in the lineup offer a buzzy dance break, densely layering up the punchy synths and calculated, sharp percussion. Stealing Sheep may have retired the pagan folk for now, but they fling themselves into the future with a respect and appreciation for where they came. They colour their version of pop with a pumping life force, ending the album on the lingering sound of a heart thumping, a nagging reminder to soak up the time we’re offered and dance it out on our every whim.