While White Lies’s Big TV was a concept album focused on the theme of young lovers moving to a big city, the London trio’s follow-up, Friends, is more concerned with the forces that compel young people to move away from one. Bassist and lyricist Charles Cave has cited the impact of the shifting dynamics of friendship when people reach their late 20s as the album’s inspiration—and, indeed, Friends explores the distance, both figurative and literal, that can grow within those friendships as time passes.
Heartache and loneliness have been a persistent thread since White Lies’s 2009 debut, To Lose My Life…, which framed those issues through a lens of gothic imagery, desperate love, and a fixation on the inevitability of death, but Friends confronts a loneliness that’s more interpersonal than existential. Though this shift could lend itself to more nuance, Friends finds White Lies’s lead vocalist, Harry McVeigh, continuing to emote effusively. Emotion is treated as all-consuming, regardless of what it might be in response to. McVeigh goes so far as to repeat the banal line “Every feeling is streaming out” on disco-tinged “Hold Back Your Love” ad nauseam.
Friends‘s lyrics reveal an obsession with the changing of the seasons, using the end of summer as a metaphor for the time in life when we’re compelled to move on from frivolity and engage in more serious endeavors. This trite metaphor as applied to the theme of the distance that grows between friends bogs down the album with its sheer relentlessness. Summer is mostly treated sentimentally, though it’s not a cure-all for emotional pain, as McVeigh bemoans that the heat can’t always melt away the blues on the power ballad “Summer Didn’t Change a Thing.”
Friends so incessantly refers to its seasons-change premise that its emotional impact is blunted by album’s end.
The band likewise fetishizes the school’s-out release of the warmer months while also mourning the friends who will inevitably move away on “Don’t Fall,” with McVeigh singing, “The summer makes a fool of every heart it wishes to,” over a minimalist darkwave pulse. When White Lies deal with oppressive melancholia, it’s in terms of the steady rain and unyielding winter of “Don’t Want to Feel It All.” Friends so incessantly refers to its generic seasons-change premise that its emotional impact is wholly blunted by the album’s end.
The sense of disconnect that comes with increased distance is conveyed most literally on the wistful “Morning in LA.” Over twinkling synth and driving guitar, McVeigh points to street noise and other clamorous stressors of city life that propel him to seek out the soothing voices of old friends scattered so far across the globe that he has to consider whether it’s an appropriate hour to call Los Angeles or Shanghai. The focus on a sense of place shifts in tone throughout the album: from a lonesome longing for home when displaced elsewhere on “Swing”; to yearning for “a little quiet” when frustrated by “all the noise” in the city on “Come On”; to being both the one who’s doing the leaving on “Is My Love Enough?” and the one who’s left behind on “Don’t Fall.”
Friends‘s most memorable song, lead single “Take It Out on Me,” comes when White Lies is less concerned with driving home their theme and simply laying down an infectious hook. While the band deserves credit for attempting to explore more personal songwriting, it only takes a song like “Take It Out on Me” to demonstrate that they remain at their best when they set aside the melodramatic faux-profundity and shoot for the kind of hook-laden, ‘80s-inspired anthems that lifted them to prominence in the first place.