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Glasvegas

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James Allan has a philosophy he applies to everything Glasvegas do: “If you follow your heart and your instincts, it might be difficult and you’ll trip yourself up at times - but usually, it works out.” With the band’s triumphant fourth album ​Godspeed, ​released on April 2021 on their own label Go Wow Records, he put that maxim to the test, not only by choosing to produce and engineer the record himself, but also going through the psychological toll of “hundreds of nights up late, thinking about the person I am, the thoughts I feel, reasons why I feel them. Making this album has probably made me understand myself a bit better as a person, to be honest. And it’s the hardest I’ve ever worked on anything in my life.”
So while the seven-year gap between ​Godspeed​ and 2013’s ​Later... When the TV Turns to Static​ might now seem “scary years ago,” for James, its long gestation period doesn’t feel entirely unjustified. “I have this kind of oblivious nature about what’s achievable for myself,” he admits. “Whatever I was before this album, I didn’t feel that was going to be enough somehow. So the timeframe felt natural for me. It makes sense.” Allan began work on Godspeed​ in 2014 when he was living in Sweden, and finished it in lockdown in his spare-room studio in Glasgow’s east end. While the songs and arrangements haven’t changed much from those early days, his own life certainly did - and the more time he spent working on the album, the more its themes and characters seemed to coalesce into an unexpected narrative.
Taking place, “all on the same night, just as the sun’s going down,” ​Godspeed​ presents a fragmented portrait of a single evening’s events, one James half-jokingly compares to ‘American Graffiti’, director George Lucas’ 1973 coming-of-age classic, “where everything happens in one night, and nothing major goes down plot-wise, but you still love the
characters and the world.” In this world, however, Mel’s Drive-In is an abandoned supermarket car park in the dead of night and its characters - from the rowing lovers (or are they nations?) of the yearning title track to the tragic young protagonist of ​My Body is a Glasshouse a Thousand Stones Ago​ - face dark and uncertain arcs.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it once I got home,” explains Allan of the brief encounter that inspired the latter song, when he passed a young prostitute on his walk back from the studio. “That’s a normal reaction most people would have to seeing something like that, but when you’re a writer, you can sometimes linger on these images, and so I started imagining her as this broken glasshouse.”
Vacant but still standing, ploughing forward to the beat of a Spector-esque snare drum, ​My Body Is a Glasshouse​ A Thousand Stones Ago is the album’s most powerful moment, a portrait of a damaged and cynical soul, who sees only, “​Symmetrical parallels, we’re two vessels and nothing more.​ ” It might be one of the best songs Allan has yet written, and he found himself inexorably drawn to the idea of writing a counterpoint, ​Cupid’s Dark Disco, which switches perspective to the predatory gaze of her next client and the unspoken power dynamic that exists between them. Underpinned by eerie subterranean synths, it presents an uncomfortable glimpse into the abyss - only to step back from it and find yourself coldly wondering, “​if my kids are in bed, if my wife is missing me​,”
A similar theme of nihilism and self-destruction courses through the abrasive garage-rock of Dying to Live​, asking “​Why do I do what I do when I do? / I was empty, I was bleeding, so fuck you.” ​It’s​ s​ ong about chasing a feeling you know is killing you,” explains James, “maybe it’s something warped or irrational, but it’s an impulse familiar to everyone.” ​Shake The Cage (Für Theo),​ meanwhile, has perhaps the most unusual origin: the title came to James, “as I was looking down at my nephew after he was born and thinking, ‘what would I say if he could understand me?” The remainder he variously credits to Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’, Phillip Glass’ opera ‘Einstein on the Beach’ and his own experiment of listening to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s autobiography ‘I Am Zlatan’ being read back to him by Victoria, the Mac OS text-to-speech voice.
“That song used to be even weirder,” Allan promises, but ​Shake The Cage​ remains plenty weird in its finished state, too: a kind of dystopian, free-associative ‘Choose life’ sermon (’​Stand on a wave / calculate quantum mechanics / Surf, dance / Believe in chance​”) set to the escalating dread and claustrophobia of a John Carpenter murder-chase.
Yet while James spent much of the past few years polishing and perfecting the album at home in Glasgow, Glasvegas themselves remained very much active. In 2018, the band took their classic debut album ​Glasvegas​ out on a hugely-successful tenth anniversary tour around the UK, providing an overdue reminder of the soulful, emotionally-raw rock n’ roll
 
that propelled them to worldwide success upon its release in 2008. Revisiting them, James says, “made me go back to a time I should probably understand better as a songwriter. But along the road you pick up these things, these weights, things you never had before, like insecurity or style or expectation. And it was quite good for me to un-learn, to take yourself back to that.”
It might have been what drew him to ​Keep Me a Space​, an older song revived late in the recording process, as the one to announce Glasvegas’ return. Originally written for a grieving relative, someone for whom, “from one day to the next, something changed and it couldn’t be fixed, couldn’t be brought back,” ​Keep Me a Space​ is peak Glasvegas, one of those songs - like Geraldine​ or ​Euphoria, Take My Hand​ - that seem capable of breaking your heart and putting it back together again. Tinged with bittersweetness at how childhood friends can drift apart and reconcile, “it was also my own way of dealing with the realisation that one day I’m going to lose someone like that and how am I going to react to that situation?”
Godspeed’​s songs might form a fictional narrative, but for James, they’re deeply personal - not only because of the years of work he’s spent on them (the lessons of which, “aren’t just for this album, but anything we do beyond it,”) but for how much of himself he recognises in them. “Your personality, your heart - those are things that come through on a record,” he says. “Things you’ll gain, things you’ll lose, your aspirations and the things that you value, things you’re embarrassed about or regret, or hope never happen.” Making this album might have been the single most challenging endeavour he’s ever undertaken, but once again, James Allan decided to follow his heart, and once again he’s been vindicated.
Barry Nicolson
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