Indie

The New Gang Of Youths Album Is An Emotional Gut Punch

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The life of Teleso “Tattersall” Le’aupepe was a grand odyssey. Born in Samoa in 1938, he eventually left for New Zealand as part of an exploitive post-war migrant workers program. He started a family there, and then moved to Australia to start another family. Years later, one of his sons started a band.

That band, Gang Of Youths, has long been invested in grand odysseys of their own. While they remain largely unknown in the U.S., they have made a name elsewhere in the world as one of rock’s most aspirational and big-sounding young bands. (When I saw them play live for the first time in 2017, it was like seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on the Born In The U.S.A. tour in a 150-person capacity club.) Now comes the astonishing Angel In Realtime, their most majestic LP yet, due Friday.

For frontman and singer-songwriter Dave Le’aupepe, Angel In Realtime is nothing less than an act of transfiguration, an attempt to bring back his father — who passed in 2018 at the age of 80 — in the form of impossibly monumental tunes that integrate a kitchen’s sink worth of sounds: chamber pop, U.K. garage, Britpop, hip-hop, and indigenous music native to his family’s Samoan and Māori cultures. Over that music, Le’aupepe opens up the innermost sanctum of his life via lyrics that spin a dense web of autobiography, cultural criticism, self-laceration, and sports references. At times, he adopts his father’s perspective; in other moments, he wonders how he’ll move on without him. It’s so personal that as a listener you feel as though you’re eavesdropping on something you shouldn’t. But then the insistent, driving music inevitably pulls you back into the fray.

If Angel In Realtime is not ultimately remembered as the best album of 2022 — though it is certainly in the running for that distinction for what is already stacking up to be a year loaded with potential all-timers — it might very well end up being the most album. There is a lot to chew on here. First, there’s the narrative: Coming after 2017’s Go Farther In Lightness put them on the map in America (and in stateside arenas as an opener for the Foo Fighters), Le’aupepe retreated to grieve his father and also wrap his head around the bombshell that his dad had another family in a different country that he never knew about, including two half-brothers.

Then there’s the meta-narrative: Gang Of Youths’ founding guitarist, Joji Malani, departed in 2018, a potentially devastating blow that eventually presented an opportunity to remake their sound. An unabashed student of seemingly every heart-on-your-sleeve arena act of the last 40 years, Le’aupepe imagined a transformation akin to what U2 pulled off in the early ’90s. If Go Farther In Lightness was their Joshua Tree — the fearlessly earnest collection of guitar-based spirituals rooted in an unending desire for transcendence — then perhaps the followup could be their Achtung Baby. An album in which beat-heavy, danceable, and often ecstatic music acts as a shield for blood-and-guts, dark-night-of-the-soul introspection. An intimate confession made to sound loud enough to engulf the entire world.

This was a considerable risk given what was at stake: Gang Of Youths signed a worldwide record deal with Warner Records in 2019, their best shot yet at establishing a real beachhead here in the States. But is there a slot in the marketplace for a record that aims for the grandiosity of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” on nearly every track, while also drawing on stirring samples of Pacific music collected by composer David Fanshawe in the 1970s? Will an album this inventive and rich and huge — it was made in as many as seven different countries over the course of several years as Le’aupepe started and scrapped three versions of the record — be properly received by an American music press still inclined to view them as a “cult” concern? Can an LP sound like it was made by the biggest band in the world when the band in question, well, actually isn’t?

The only honest answer to all of these questions is “I have no idea.” So let’s focus on what’s clear at the moment: Angel In Realtime is a real achievement. Musically, the depth and breadth of sounds outstrip what is normally heard in the indie-rock sphere. A relatively low-key cut like “Forbearance” might nod to The National’s recent electro-folk experiments, but so much of the album aims beyond that and straight for the moon. “The Man Himself” is especially rousing in this regard — the moment when spine-tingling choral vocals recorded in the Cook Islands are seamlessly infused with breakbeats and a surging 42-piece orchestra ranks with the most emotionally overpowering moments on any recent rock record. And then there’s “The Kingdom Is Within You,” a skittering pocket symphony that manages to absolutely earn a title like “The Kingdom Is Within You.” There’s just so much here, but the impeccable craftsmanship of intricately layering the sounds ensures that each element has its own space. Which means on a song like “Unison,” you can appreciate the audacity of slipping in a banjo lick as the strings swell and the beats slap.

As a lyricist, Le’aupepe establishes a conversational style spiked with literary wit, in which a self-effacing joke lands only after a Google search to help decipher a critical word. (Thanks to this album I now know what “tenterhook” means.) But this is only a disarming gesture preluding a series of incoming gut-punches, in which Le’aupepe unsparingly addresses grief over his dad, plumbs mixed feelings about his dad’s deception, and expresses love for the older brothers he’s gotten to know after his dad died.

Given the inspiration, Angel In Realtime might appear to be a downer. But even at its bleakest — the part in “Spirit Boy” when Le’aupepe sings, “God died today / and left me in the cold” qualifies as the single saddest moment — the constant uplift of the music successfully buoys the record. On “Tend The Garden,” over a propulsive “Mysterious Ways”-like electro-rock purr, Le’aupepe adopts his father’s voice: “Lord knows if they would ever forgive me I don’t forgive myself at least / there are strange forces in the air only time can release in a way I still believe.” Is this a son’s wishful thinking for what he hopes his dad might say? Angel In Realtime somehow manages to not feel quite so self-indulgent. Rather, it registers as a gift to a man who never had one last opportunity to speak for himself.

All of this leads to the album’s heart, which also happens to be the most stripped-down track on Angel In Realtime. This pertains to the music on “Brothers,” composed only of Le’aupepe’s hushed voice and sparse piano, as well as the lyric, which unfolds like a more-or-less straightforward account of how he met the rest of his family. This verse hits hardest:

I know our father had his reasons but that
Can never make it right or fair
I hate myself for stealing all his love when
My brothers thought that he was dead
So as I dig through the collateral
The secrets kept throughout the years
I know I’ll hardly ever answer them
But it’s a way to keep him near

The music on Angel In Realtime forms an enormous shell in which to fit lyrics so specific you feel as though Le’aupepe has mistakenly leaked his innermost thoughts. This is the dichotomy of Angel In Realtime — it is a roar that articulates what under normal circumstances would only be whispered, if spoken at all.

Gang Of Youths is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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