For a band that have made a name for themselves by being “twee,” “cute,” and “childlike,” The Boy Least Likely To have matured well. From their spry beginnings back in 2005 when they released their undeniably infectious and upbeat debut album The Best Party Ever, they’ve maintained a likeable disposition despite label troubles holding back their sophomore release, The Law of the Playground. Their output hasn’t been excessive over the eight years (they also dropped a B-sides compilation (The Best B-Sides Ever) and a Christmas album (The Boy Least Likely To Christmas Special), but arguably one needs to have a stomach for their kind of music; no matter how sugary you like your instrumentation and how naïve you like your lyrical sentiments, an annual release is almost too sickly to imagine. Their new album, The Great Perhaps, attempts to build their core sound and ideas into something more, almost dealing with growing up in real time over the course of the album. Their first album cover had a garish yellow backdrop; The Great Perhaps sports a murky grey. Maybe it doesn’t get so much better.
But don’t be fooled by appearances: The Boy Least Likely To are still the same band. They’re still hitting on the big emotions and problems that affect age groups from ten onwards and using guitars and twinkly instrumentation to sing their songs. Rather, the cover is an example of how the band have come along, and represents one of the strengths The Great Perhaps has to boast – that being thematic consistency. Space and the great sparkly darkness in which we all stare at with fascination is not only good for representing how big the world can seem (or get) for someone growing up, but the awe in which we humans remain of it allows singer Jof Owen to retain his appropriately astounding childish outlook on life. You’re not likely to find anything on par with Descartesian philosophy, but Owen can still wriggle out a surprisingly effective line regularly over the course of an album and still sound like he’s coming from a juvenile viewpoint without sounding tedious. The best example of this is one of the album’s highlights, “Taking Windmills For Giants,” where Owen admits he makes more than he should out a failing relationship, trying to hold on to it because he still wants to feel that first date kind of excitement. Simultaneously it captures the scale of the world from a child’s viewpoint, standing in awe of such a large construction, and how daunting and scary it can be. In both cases Owen grows up and he admits “I don’t take windmills for anything other than windmills anymore.”
The song sits in the first half of The Great Perhaps where Owen surrounds it by tracks that come like life lessons told to an elementary schoolchild, and this continues Owen’s tried and tested formula. “Lonely Alone” presents one of the album’s other themes (loneliness), and explains it with a long-winded chorus that rests calmly on the idea that although life can be lonely, you’re not alone in how lonely you feel. On “I Keep Falling in Love With You Again” he describes the titular emotion in simple terms, but ultimately confesses “love is all that I know,” a sentiment that carries on throughout the album, and indeed threads all of the duo’s albums together.
Come the second half of the album, Owen begins to sound like he’s trying to understand things from a more grown up perspective, if not at the very least, an adolescent one. Sure, on “It Could’ve Been Me” he sounds cute as ever, passing lines back and forth with a girl he had a crush on in high school, but once “Climbing Out Of Love” presents itself, it shows that he’s trying to move on, and the first step is doing what the title says. On “Michael Collins” he combines the two aforementioned themes, imagining how the Apollo 11 astronaut orbiting the moon might have felt, disconnected from everyone on earth while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked the surface of the moon. But Collins admits he never felt lonely, but rather felt blessed to have the kind of solitude he experienced. Owen turns his lyrics around accordingly, wishing he could have seen what Collins did, concluding and wishing with a bit of a lump in his throat that “we didn’t have to go so far/ to see the world from the stars.” The song finishes with a few lonely bleeps into nothingness, like radio messages lost forever while everyone remains out of reach. Loneliness doesn’t often sound this lovely.
If The Great Perhaps is anything, then it’s the duo’s electronic album. While it might be easy to imagine Owen and bandmate Pete Hobbs being overbearing and over-excitable with their new sound in a way that resembled them going, “Hey guys! New Electronix! Yay!,” like some fanatical children’s show character, the truth is this is not really new territory. There are still acoustic guitars, but the band isn’t shy about using synth arpeggios and drum machines. The album begins with a cheeky Rick Astely-like synthetic drum roll, and from there you’ve got the effervescent “Even Jesus Couldn’t Mend My Broken Heart” and the bouncy piano chords on “Climbing Out Of Love” that sit aside lots of little noises that resemble the sounds a child might think computers on a spaceship might make. “Michael Collins” and “The Dreamer Song” drift by calmly by, like an astronaut in zero gravity as strings brings a coyly regal feel to the former track.
If anything then, The Great Perhaps is well-executed middle ground. It’s not as exciting as The Best Party Ever, but that’s because we know what to expect when it comes to The Boy Least Likely To. But, as said, the album does boast thematic consistency, which brings it close to being something of a concept album – an admirable task for the duo to try and bring together. While they sound like they’re trying to step outside of their box, they can always rely on their excessive charm working wonders, whether it’s just musically (the toy piano and handclaps on “Taking Windmills For Giants”), lyrically (the aforementioned life lesson for a kid, “Lonely Alone”), or both (the cute acoustic closing track “Thank You For Being My Friend,” which nostalgically brings to mind ’90s pop group East 17 and their hit single “Stay Another Day”). And while that cover might be their darkest yet, it’s still peppered with childish drawings of planets, shooting stars, spaceships and a bee (a Doctor Who reference methinks). You can take the child out of the playground, but you can’t take the playground out of the child. To someone young, the world is just another adventure waiting to happen, and if it’s not enough, then they’ll look to stars.