The Beths’ 2018 debut album Future Me Hates Me was lightning in a bottle. It was surprising to learn that the Kiwis were actually students of jazz, because the songs that populated their debut outing were almost the complete opposite: tightly and compactly written, and not needing to go outside of the standard guitars-bass-drums combo to deliver a pure thrill. It’s always going to be tough to follow up a record that was released with minimal expectation and received overwhelming adoration, but The Beths have proven themselves to have that classic New Zealand nonplussed demeanour, and they probably went about recording the follow-up, Jump Rope Gazers, in much the same way: just as four good friends jamming.
This calm appearance is belied by Liz Stokes’ words though, as she continues to sing of perennial self-doubt – another element that made The Beths’ debut so lovable. On Jump Rope Gazers her lyricism is more intricate, an attempt to get below the surface of those feelings, and the band have also slightly upped their musicality to match. This should be something that’s commended, but there’s a nagging feeling that the songs are less effective when they’re more verbose.
Take for example Jump Rope Gazers’ opening couplet – and some of the strongest songs here – “I’m Not Getting Excited” and “Dying To Believe”. Aside from packing a slightly more muscular guitar sound, they barely modify the straight-ahead indie punk formula that worked so consistently across Future Me Hates Me. It’s impressive to hear Stokes run trippingly through the opening lines “I’m not getting excited / ‘Cause the thrill isn’t mine to invite in / Just the chill when I learn that it’s finally my turn / I have finally earned my place in the urn,” but it’s impossible to catch every word, and the lack of a true chorus means there’s some connection missing that made the debut such a winner. Although there is plenty of zip and bombast in “Dying To Believe”, a similar problem occurs; it has a title ready to be screamed in a power-punk chorus, but instead it’s buried in another word salad: “It burns me but I’ll smile through the heat / I’m dying to believe that you won’t be the death of me.”
The Beths have also taken the advent of their second album to try some changes of pace. On the slow-burning title track they produce a countrified indie rock sound, with Stokes delivering the simple declaration of “I love you / and I think that I’ve loved you the whole time,” which perfectly hits the saccharine-adorable sweet spot, even if the line “we were jump rope gazers in the middle of the night” is one that’ll have you pondering its meaning for some time. The acoustic “You Are A Beam of Light” is another simple pleasure, and gives them an opportunity to show off their vocal harmonies in a more spacious atmosphere. The only of Jump Rope Gazers’ mid-tempo songs that doesn’t quite land is “Do You Want Me Now”, which would be overly self-pitying if it weren’t for The Beths’ ineffable charm just about pulling it back from the brink.
Like the opening couplet, the best moments on Jump Rope Gazers are where they fuse their new ambition with their old simplicity. “Out of Sight” is a delightful example, as they add a little guitar jangle and percussive flair to their sound, matching Stokes’ introspective musings. “Mars, the God of War” packs in Stokes’ penchant for brainy lines (“All of your recall requires optometry / ‘Cause what I want to see is you seeing clearly”) but, crucially, also has the most shout-along chorus, which The Beths serve up with plenty of momentum: “I wish that I could wish you well / Instead I’m hitting my head / And hitting backspace on ‘Can’t you just go to hell’.” The closing “Just Shy of Sure” embeds Stokes’ insecurity within gliding guitars, fluttering harmonies and sparkling instrumental adornments, ending the album with an understated flourish.
Jump Rope Gazers is still packed with the bright and intelligent pop-rock songwriting we know The Beths for, but it’s hard not to consistently compare it with its predecessor’s deadly effectiveness. It’s clear that The Beths have deliberately tried to avoid repetition by pushing their sound forward, while not abandoning what made them so appealing in the first place. The songs on Jump Rope Gazers aren’t as immediately addictive as what came before, but The Beths’ natural intuition for emotive and melodic writing is still intact, and there will undoubtedly be heaps of people who will take the time to wade through Stokes’ words and come out loving this one just as much.