If your first experience with White Lung was hearing “Below,” the shimmering new single from fourth album Paradise, you’d likely be caught off guard by the ferocity with which the band typically operates. They’re an aggressive bunch, almost overwhelmingly so, their previous two albums each an exercise in maximizing intensity in 20-minute installments. But “Below” is different. It’s spacious and pretty, as perfect a pop song as they’ve written, juxtaposing highs and lows and showcasing patience and contrasts in a way they never have before. It’s subtler, but not necessarily subtle—in fact, every open space in the song only serves to highlight the parts that hit the hardest. Vocalist Mish Barber-Way even showcases an impressive broadening of her vocal range, delivering a line like “I want to take it all down/ Burning the waste you have found” with emotional longing rather than pure seething.
“Below” is just the next logical stop along an ascent White Lung have been making through the whole of their career. Just as 2014’s Deep Fantasy brought in a bit more depth than 2012’s excellent and raw Sorry, Paradise finds the Vancouver band embracing melody more explicitly and stretching their limits a bit further. It’s telling that this is their longest album to date—these 10 songs still mostly move at a breakneck pace, but the landscape they reveal along the way is much more intricately detailed. In a pre-release conversation with Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, Barber-Way describes the album as featuring “the best song writing we have ever done.” She’s not wrong.
Paradise is still very much a punk album, and one with a tightly clenched fist at that. The opening bass throb, Kenneth William’s furiously strummed riffs and Anne-Marie Vassiliou’s pounding snare drum of “Dead Weight” presents one of White Lung’s heaviest moments on record. They may be opening themselves up to a broader palette and a more diverse approach, but they’re sacrificing none of their bite in the process. It’s more of a difference between precision cuts and sheer brutality, as evidenced by the piercing riffs and stop-on-a-dime dynamics of “Narcoleptic.” There’s a similar retreat from outright force on first single “Hungry,” one of White Lung’s strongest songs to date (the video of which briefly features Deafheaven’s George Clarke in his finest resort-kvlt wear). By any other band’s measure this would be a surefire banger, but in the context of White Lung’s catalog it feels more relaxed. There are actual moments when the reverb effect on William’s guitar serves as an actual echo, and not just an instrument to make an already furious roar sound bigger.
That Paradise sounds like the band’s best album—thanks in some part to their collaboration with producer Lars Stalfors (HEALTH, Cold War Kids)—contradicts the outdated maxim that great works are created through deep pain or struggle. Barber-Way got married before the album, and went so far as to admit that her personal happiness meant she had to look elsewhere for lyrical inspiration. So while “Below” feels like a moment of emotional catharsis—and it is, even if philosophical in nature—its origins are in musings on the complicated relationship between beauty and feminism. There are more extreme examples, most notably a couple of songs that draw on the perspectives of serial killers. Yet it’s “Kiss Me When I Bleed” that seems the most genuine, a kind of fucked-up trailer park class-struggle romance whose emotional core and depiction of love’s ironclad bonds is real, no matter the grotesque imagery: “They say I split my pride in two/ When I became a bride for you/ But what do they know?”
For those who’ve been following the band since their earliest, most combustible clusters of venomous hardcore, Paradise likely won’t feel like the work of a different band. And it isn’t; they’ve graduated to a new level of songwriting, where the moving parts and standout moments within their songs are just as important of the energy that drives them. White Lung, more than ever, are embracing pop. Pop that can still fuck you up.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.