Porridge Radio’s ‘Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky’ Is Interested In Infinity

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Dana Margolin of Porridge Radio is sitting in a car to avoid getting a ticket, summing up these weeks leading up to her band’s album release as “crazy times.” It’s late April when we talk over Zoom, and she’s preparing to move to a new house and leave her home base of England for a short press trip in New York. “There’s a lot happening,” she says, “but anyway, enough about that.”

Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky is the third album by the UK indie-rock group, following their lowkey 2016 debut Rice, Pasta And Other Fillers and their breakthrough 2020 masterwork Every Bad. The latter watched the quartet putting their all into colossal, evocative songs rich with raw feeling and powerful instrumentals. It put the band on a pedestal, earning them a nomination for a Mercury Prize as well as raving reviews including one from Pitchfork declaring the record Best New Music. They were about to embark on a tour in the states opening up for Car Seat Headrest when the pandemic shut everything down. Their success, then, was only tangible online. The attention startled Margolin, forcing her to grapple with the changes that come with a rising status in the music industry. This inevitably ended up as a theme in some of the new songs, such as “Back To The Radio” and “End Of Last Year.”

“I didn’t start a band on purpose,” she reflects. “I started a band by accident.” Since she was a kid, she would make up songs and poems as a way of having fun. It wasn’t until she was 20 that she began taking it more seriously, and she’s still figuring out exactly what it means to take on the role of a bandleader. “Like, who the f*ck am I to have to stand in front of people on stage and command their attention?” she speculates. “I know how to do it and I know that I love it but also it’s incredibly difficult.”

I saw Porridge Radio at Village Underground in London in November of last year. It was my first show outside of the United States, and I was running on no sleep after being wide awake on my overnight flight. Yet Margolin energized me and the entire crowd of the sold-out gig. The venue was capacious with a slanted ceiling, reminding me of a church; the songs filled up all of the space, and Margolin’s presence was like that of a priest, her words confident and cathartic like holy proclamations. Her lyrics are known for frequent repetition (In Every Bad opener “Born Confused,” she sings the line “Thank you for making me happy” 41 times), which contributes to the momentum of the recorded songs but also to the intensity of live performances. It invites everyone — even those who may have never heard the song before — to join in, similar to a chant or a choir.

On the third track of Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky, Margolin sings the line “I don’t want to be loved” 57 times. It’s one of the many moments that feel heavy with a deep feeling of shame. When I ask if making music serves as a sort of atonement, she rejects the idea. “I think of it as a place to get something out or to reveal a part of myself that I would otherwise be too ashamed to reveal,” she explains. “It’s a space where I can try to be understood and try to let go of something and try to have people hear just what I’m experiencing.”

Along with repetition, questions are a motif in her lyrics. Trying to count how many there are on the new album would be a masochistic task, but some notable ones include: “It’s not easy, is it for you?” on the conflicted “Jealousy,” “When do I surrender?” on the closing title track, and “Do you remember when we all fell apart?” on the otherwordly second single “The Rip.” The questions vary; they ricochet from being directed at herself and at others, and some are easier to answer while others are impossible. She chalks this up as her “just trying to figure some shit out,” she says. “It’s very confusing, just having to exist and understand things.”

“Once you ask the question, you kind of know whether or not it was a stupid question,” she says. “But in the process of asking it and saying it, you can hear yourself and you can figure out if you agree with yourself. You write it down and you look at it and you think, ‘Is that true? Or is it not true? Was that a helpful question to ask?’ I think just the very act of asking a question gives you space to answer it for yourself and to process it. That is a really important part of life—asking things and saying things out loud and trying to see if you agree with yourself.”

As words are said over and over, the meaning changes, almost expanding and contracting over the course of the song. Eventually, the syllables are just sounds, as if emitted from an instrument. This makes sense in the context of Margolin’s fascination with endlessness and seeing herself and her struggles as small in the grand scheme of the universe; the more she repeats her complicated questions and declarations, the less real they seem. “I am really interested in the idea that things go on forever,” she contemplates, “and they repeat in infinite loops. I like my life and my relationships are everything, and nothing really. There’s something really beautiful and quite freeing in that idea.”

The stakes are high in Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky — but there are also no stakes at all. The sprawling, fragile finale is buoyed by simple chords and Margolin’s soft vocals as she lulls the last lines: “No, I don’t want the end / But I don’t want the beginning / All the way down to hell / And all the way up to heaven.” Her words soar like doves; it’s an incantation of liberation.

Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky is out Friday on Secretly Canadian. Get it here.