Album Review: The Murder Capital – Gigi’s Recovery

[Human Season; 2023]

To struggle with anxiety is horrifying. Similar to depression, the condition can be incredibly paralyzing and dominate an individual’s behavioural patterns to a point where it guides what is said or felt, and it can read like a wholly different personality emerging, seemingly out of nowhere. Anything can cause the disorder to manifest – from a traumatic childhood to an abusive partner, or the uncertain existential livelihood condition in a capitalist society. The things we fear are both inherently personal and political, making it often impossible to understand for outsiders. It’s impossible to translate dread – you can just try to accept it.

Maybe that’s why When I Have Fears – the 2019 debut album of Irish post-punk group The Murder Capital – landed in the uneven space between critical praise and wholly anecdotal success. Hyped by much of the British music press as the band of the hour, their star quickly rose only to disappear during the lockdown – the world seemed to have forgotten about them, just as their good friends Fontaines D.C. rose to international stardom. It’s possible to argue that the record’s thematic core of deeply existential dread surrounding depression and suicidal thoughts manifested as too close to home during a period of collective turmoil. It’s no fun to be melancholic when you’re forced to stay at home and not meet anybody.

But given that the record was released not even a year after the band’s full formation, it’s also evident that the group’s identity hadn’t fully established itself just yet, with vocalist James McGovern often aiming for a mannered, gothic vocal tone that didn’t seem as refined as his sharp poetry, and the band sometimes drifting into the generic.

With Gigi’s Recovery, the five-piece returns four years later – to some they seem to have come out of nowhere – to reflect on their forced absence and illuminate the dark melancholia of their debut. The Joy Division-tone has shifted towards XTC, The Smiths and – most of all – Josef K: an almost schizophrenic sense of uncanny euphoria. The instruments unstable, asymmetric notes announcing themselves slowly as they grow louder, climaxes exploding: Gigi’s Recovery is a violent record that chronicles grappling with missed chances and the acceptance of a world outside of one’s own suffering. It outdoes the good debut in almost all fronts and establishes The Murder Capital as one of the most exciting indie bands.

For one, McGovern has shifted the somewhat mannered tone of the debut for a more laid back and natural vocal performance, which allows him to play with his full register. There’s now shades of Iceage’s Elias Bender Rønnenfelt in songs like “Ethel” and “A Thousand Lives”, a more defiant and powerful performance that communicates itself to the listener. And speaking of, the singles this time around are real showstoppers: demanding and intuitive, they come across as genuine hits that could stand next to any highly acclaimed indie band’s best work. The rambunctious “Return My Head” and the Morrissey-infused “Only Good Things” hit especially hard. But then there’s another side to the album, which tells a different story…

For one, there’s the two short tracks that bookmark the album – “Existence” and “Exist”. Over anguished dissonant drone, the first finds the protagonist in a borderline suicidal moment, as he observes himself drifting into a will to fade away. “Exist” rewrites those harrowing lyrics into a subtle guitar ballad, as the protagonist embraces his life and accepts change. But there’s a harrowing melancholy to the tone, allowing for the ambivalence that – maybe – the character is merely lying to himself. And even if he’s genuine, the tension remains.

This darkness of inner struggle dominates the mid-section of the record, as the group explores psychological horrors. “The Lie Becomes The Self” is a harsh highlight – especially as McGovern delivers some of his most magnificent lyrics here: “Therе in the gutter’s starlight we find oursеlves complete / That’s why I can’t resist it you can’t resist it / Those bloodied stains between the teeth / Fuck standing at the foot of your mirror / A clown’s reflection and I am revealed”. It’s a slow and stubborn song, reminiscent of the most sullen moments of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, which finally segues into a mellotron outro, as McGovern repeats “What is it all about / If I can’t hear your laugh?”

“We Had To Disappear” is even gloomier: seemingly a portrait of suicide, it resembles The Smiths’ “Well I Wonder” in melancholy, and is one of the few recent tracks in the genre that actually got me close to tears, as McGovern uses the ocean as a symbol of annihilation: “The only place to taste your fear / Convince your mind to disappear / Bluebells draping from your ear / In killer calm the void so sweet / I drain my noise to feel complete / I’m dancing in the waves” Suicide shouldn’t be glorified, and it’s to The Murder Capital’s credit that whenever they approach the subject, they do so with a deep lyrical sense of loss and regret. There is a gothic romanticism to these lines, but it’s also one that will hit home for many and express the inexpressible.

But then there’s also the constant theme of the sky that rivals the ocean. It appears in the Johnny Greenwood-infused “Crying”, where it homes in on the stars, which seem almost near the touch of the protagonist, only for him to realise he’s left someone behind in his ascent, McGovern finally pleading “I will I’ll wait I’m waiting for you”. On “The Stars Will Leave the Stage”, the two extremes of the celestial and nautical finally meet: “Just like ships in the night / Promising to collide / Well, I’m casting myself aside / And the shoreline alight / Where the beaches divide”. There’s a lot of room for interpretation here, and it seems wrong to suggest just one reading – especially as “Only Good Things” and “Ethel” suggest there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And speaking of, the latter is probably the first big guitar-led hit of the year, an uncomfortable, at times borderline drunken punk song that builds itself piece by piece, finally unloading all the strange tension in the (wishful) utopia of domestic bliss with Baby Ethel at the centre.

It would be easy to just write off Gigi’s Recovery as a successful indie rock album in the tradition of many successful indie rock albums that pay homage to the past and soon fade into the background once the singles have run the industry lifecycle, but that would be incredibly unfair. The material here stands apart from its influences and showcases both maturity and the ‘wild abandon’ necessary to stand the test of time – the sort of vigor that makes The Rakes’ albums still exciting almost 20 years later. It’s thematically dense and passionate music that succeeds at all its attempts. And then there’s also the fact that, within only a year, this is the third album from a Dublin-based punk band that feels like it manages to capture the zeitgeist. Not quite as structuralist as Fontaines D.C. and not as abrasively unique as the kings of Gilla Band, they explore a wide range with plentiful detail – both in the approach to varying guitar and rhythm patterns but also on the emotional spectrum. 

And that’s where the record truly shines: Gigi’s Recovery manages to portray a soul longing for healing, resisting its thanatonic urges, grappling with the reality of being born into a cold, loveless void, and somehow trying to accept being loveable. And it has the brevity to show us that, at the end of its 12 song cycle, the battle can be won, even if the war will never end. As solemn as this might sound, it’s also genuinely optimistic, chronicling the growth to a better, brighter future.