The Secret History
The World That Never Was
Label: Le Grand Magistery
Few things in music journalism are more clichéd than a critic’s wounded lament for an underappreciated album. Still, I’ll tell anyone who will listen – which by now isn’t many people – that the Secret History’s 2008 Desolation Town EP continues to be criminally overlooked by both the indie press and listening public. Its songs combined buoyant indie pop with trace amounts of the Smiths, glam rock- before it overdosed on its own excesses- and girl group harmonies stripped of their optimistic, cooing overtones. Desolation Town was a predominately dark affair, loosely based around the story of someone who flees the ruins of Hiroshima, stumbles his way through Europe and ends up fairly miserable in Palermo. It was evocative, troubling stuff, a handful of songs whose narrative arcs, set sometime in the past, unfolded like a dream or surrealist film and whose various tragedies felt both timeless and contemporary.
The band follows a similar approach on debut LP The World That Never Was, a deeply-woven, complex and altogether brilliant effort that represents one of the most mature debut indie releases in recent memory. Its songs sound instantly familiar but offer enough variations to distinguish them from their apparent influences, crisscrossing genres with ease. Many of the songs’ arrangements are shimmering and bright: after a bit of roughhouse hooligan chanting and clapping, “Johnny Anorak” opens with crunching guitars and a keyboard melody that falls just on the right side of kitschy, “Our Lady of Stalingrad” is an infectious mix of bouncing piano and intricate harmonies and “Love Theme” showcases Lisa Ronson’s vibrant vocals. Other songs are more deliberate: “God Save the Runaways” and “Sex with Ghosts” move at a funereal pace against a hazy instrumental mix, while “Our Lady of Palermo” – the only carryover from the EP – is perhaps the album’s most disarming track. Set in a “pilgrimage to where God’s never been” and sung by Ronson as plainly as possible, it’s a stripped-bare song of rain-soaked streets and lost summers whose martial drumbeat and strings are absolutely devastating in their emotional impact.
Songwriter Michael Grace, Jr. ambitiously weaves several thematic strands together; his lyrics are literate but never coldly academic or detached, varied without feeling inaccessible. Although the songs’ arrangements are primarily upbeat, their subject matter is almost always bleak. Like on the EP, these songs and their events occur as if in a dream or a movie presented out of sequence. Certain images recur throughout this so-called “requiem for young monsters,” most frequently musicians and their awestruck worshippers, ghosts and, of course, monsters; Frankenstein’s bride, Marlene Dietrich, Bela Lugosi and, um, a dead babysitter all make appearances. These are songs of distance and loneliness spread out across a vast geography of ghettos, grottos and Super 8 motels, combined with a sense of mortality that is impossible to shake. “They buried her there in the garden/ Behind the refinery,” Ronson sings on “Sex With Ghosts,” while in other places Grace’s characters walk “on the shadowy side of the street” and realize that the “stars shine brighter and brighter/ Until they go out.” Grace’s lyrics – already solid back in his My Favorite days – have simply never been better or more nuanced.
Plenty of other aspects make The World That Never Was so intriguing – the theological musings of “Sister Rose” and “How I Saved My Life,” occasional bouts of dry humor and flawless ensemble performances from the seven-member band also deserve mention – but the album succeeds because its disconcertingly beautiful arrangements and expressive lyrics complement each other so well. If our lives, dreams and little desperations could be put to music, we’d be fortunate if this is what they’d sound like.
by Eric Dennis