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Free Love
Inside Bernie Brooks , March 2nd, 2023 09:42

Free Love’s latest LP of exploratory tunes is dangerously nice, says Bernie Brooks

What’s the verdict on niceness these days? For a good chunk of my life, I’ve been getting mixed messages. Like most people, I was taught that it’s important to be nice. And obviously, niceness is objectively great. It makes the world a better place to be. It feels good to be nice, and it feels good when people are nice to you. Its a win / win. Nothing controversial here. But to present as nice? To have that be your defining signifier? That's a different story. When I grew up, that was squaresville.

I have this memory of a TV show or movie that has stuck with me for years, but I no longer remember what TV show or movie it came from, and maybe I’m remembering it wrong. Anyway, in it, our hero flies off the handle when a friend or love interest says something along the lines of, “I like you because you’re nice.” “Screw you!”, says the character on the receiving end of this forbidden compliment. “I’d rather be anything but ‘nice’. Being nice is boring.” As a whole, that’s more or less how I remember the 90s, my experience of it.

In the late 90s, in art school, being seen as nice was suspect. Better to come off as a little dickish or a little damaged, maybe ironically detached and above it all. Being a slacker worked, too, but that's just another flavour of disengagement. And nice art? Well, that was seen as deeply unserious. Uninteresting and safe. This, of course, is stupid. Anything can be interesting if done well, and niceness is anything but safe. How can something so reliant on trust be without risk? Being nice is hard. Being nice is dangerous, to oneself and, perhaps, to the status quo.

Free Love are dangerous. Free Love are nice.

Or at least, everything about the duo of Lewis and Suzi Cook seems that way, including their music. And it’s anything but boring. Formerly known as Happy Meals, Free Love have been kicking around Glasgow for something like a decade, knocking out singles, LPs, and EPs for the likes of Night School, Good Press, Optimo Music, their own Full Ashram, and now for Lost Map, who happen to be dropping the duo’s latest full-length slab, Inside. It’s a natural evolution of their sound, a stew of hi-NRG, meditative and devotional music, kosmische, with a healthy dash of YMO. As in any stew, certain ingredients bubble up and become more prominent from time to time, dominating individual spoonsful but without diminishing the dish as a whole. Like everything Free Love have done thus far, it’s wholesome, warm, and nourishing.

But it’s a slightly skewed sort of wholesome, one that slyly but not unkindly skewers normative depictions of things like wholesomeness, and, going further, the behavioural expectations of performing wholesomeness in our end-of-days, late-capitalist hellworld. Or at least, it seems that way. Take, for instance, the cover of Inside. It’s a family portrait of sorts. Lewis behind a visibly pregnant Suzi. Dignified, she’s down on one knee, cradling her exposed belly with her right hand, holding a bundle of flowers in her left. But Lewis is pulling a face. Oh, and they’re in the middle of what appears to be the soda aisle of a grocery store. See what I mean? This sensibility applies to their music as well, which can veer from beautifully sincere to silly to absurd and back again. Or maybe it’s all those things at the same time. Maybe that’s just life. Still, all the time, there’s a love in it. A niceness.

So, when I say Free Love are nice, I don't mean that’s all they are, that would be insipid and twee, wretched stuff. That’s how I imagine commodified, packaged niceness to be. Like sitcoms I haven’t seen whose whole deal is a following a fish-out-of-water, purely nice bozo, clueless and incongruous in a shit world. Sometimes, they’ve emerged from a bunker or traveled through time or something. See, they haven’t been busted by a garbage society, learned to be anything other than what they already are. They haven’t made a choice. It’s all very 2-D. Here, there’s real depth of emotion and experience, and it’s not always easy. Like on the squiggly slow-burner ‘Fight Or Flight’, whose narrator contemplates severing a relationship. There’s pain there that feels earned and real, but also empathy and openness. Free Love clearly know what the world is all about, but they’ve chosen to be what they are, to present this face to the world, in spite of the world – and its uncertainty and impermanence. That takes a certain bravery.

If I haven’t mentioned Free Love's music much, it’s because, when it comes to their thing, they’ve always been maestros and they still are. These are exceptionally crafted, exploratory tunes that squish and warp and wobble over splashy, woody pads. Flutes and nature sounds and atmospheric washes of synths are buoyed by elastic basslines. The pair delight in channeling a bit of Patrick Cowley here and there, but more than that, they clearly take delight in creation, period. It shines through on every track. This can just be your pop music, but it could also be more if you let it.

When I think back to the 90s and aughts, I’m sometimes embarrassed by the artifice everywhere when I was young. People playing at being cynical or sneeringly disillusioned or whatever. The constant, “Oh he seems like a real prick, but he’s a good guy.” There was a cowardice in it all, really. To be clear, I’m not claiming to have been above it or any better, but you get older and realise how absolutely idiotic it all was. Anyhow, I’m sure it’s basically the same now, just different when it comes to the particulars. Maybe now the thing is to pretend to be decent and caring and engaged. I mean, I don’t know the Cooks – maybe they're total assholes, maybe their whole vibe is just a put on, more artifice. But I doubt it. And ultimately, I’m not sure it matters what they’re actually like, because Inside feels real. It feels properly nice. That’s what matters – the feeling and what it inspires.