When I was younger I once watched a house burn down. I was out walking by myself one evening when I was attracted by an orange glow and what looked like low-hanging black clouds emanating from a quiet neighborhood in town. I found a cozy looking one-story home being utterly dominated by a minor inferno, the flames flashing out from the windows as if to mock the surrounding houses. All those years of fire safety lessons and insinuations that I show “courage” could not dissuade me from the impression that this was a natural act like a snowfall or aurora borealis. I sat up against a tree on the other side of the road, hugged my knees and just watched as the house’s roof cave in, the exterior blacken, and the frame deteriorate. The fire department showed up eventually and the fire was contained. I got up and walked back home.
From flame to ash there was a calm in me that could not be found in any other aspect of my both dull and stressful daily life, seeing nature interacting with humanity the only way it knew how. It was a feeling of having no feeling whatsoever, a cocktail of indifference and contentedness. It is a non-feeling that I knew few others could understand, let alone experience for themselves. Expressing it even to a therapist seemed always to fall flat. The same is true of art, especially extremes-based mediums like rock music. Some bands have tried to address the non-feeling, only in the end to confuse it with alienation and only then end up railing against it. Radiohead has based an entire career on this mistake, but bring confused bystanders they are only reflecting what the majority of the population thinks.
Going by their debut These Four Walls I would never have considered We Were Promised Jetpacks to understand the non-feeling, let alone address it. Though with much more pep than their peers, WWPJ was very much a part of the let’s-hold-hands-and-trot-through-the-fog style of Scot rock, somewhat anxious, somewhat melancholic, but mostly innocent and contented with the state of the world, nor worried that it would change. Generally modern Scottish indie rock seems to me to be the second-most willfully ignorant music after American indie rock, its main advantage over American indies being that it sounds infinitely superior, as evidenced by WWPJ two singles off that album “Roll Up Your Sleeves” and “Quiet Little Voices,” which both showcased the band’s agile-to-the-point-of ruthlessly efficient musicianship, their sensitive melodic ear and a poetic voice at once ponderous and sentimental. Scotland certainly harbors its fair share of miserablists — the smoldering Twilight Sad being chief among them — but even when sullen, WWPJ never seemed quite able or willing to crossover. It turns out they didn’t, but they didn’t stay in the same place either.
To the casual listener, In the Pit of the Stomach doesn’t sound terribly distinct from These Four Walls. One must be particularly sensitive-or at least listen a little longer-in order to catch what’s being done this time around. The musicianship remains as focused as ever, still presenting a band with a firm handle on and love for pop songcraft. But at the same time one cannot deny the coarseness that has settled into every riff, every rhythm, indeed every note, from start to finish. None of the songs really reproduce or recapture the jovial spirit of “Quite Little Voices,” and yet that is entirely the point. In addition to the harder punk-infused riffs on songs such as “Human Error” and “Through the Dirt and the Gravel” there is a notable downshift if the vocal style of Adam Thompson that leaves the most devastating mark on the most optimistic listener. Where he was once wistful on “Sleeves” and raucous on “Voices” he now ranges from exasperated (“Circles and Squares,” “The Boy in the Backseat”) to defeated and/or fragile (“Medicine,” “Pear Tree”) to soulless (“Act on Impulse”). But it’s the latter style that becomes the album. All of the songs without question are good songs in the objective and artistic sense, but there’s something truly special about a song like “Act on Impulse.” Though musically it’s actually one of the more upbeat, it does little to escape the numbness that haunts the vocals and lyrics, such as when Thompson matter-of-factly opens the song telling the listener “You died alone/ You died on impact/ All this talk of death/ has really brightened up my week” with the cavalier demeanor of a bartender to a regular. It seems to serve generally as a depiction of one’s indifference to everyday custom and sentimentality rather than disdain, going on to say “We act alone/ We act on impulse” with lucid acceptance and a shrug.
With a song such as “Act on Impulse” in existence even disdain would be a welcomed lightening of tone. It is a sound that many people hate and fear, not least of all Americans. It is the sound of mourning during a funeral attended only by the corpse; it is the sound of watching a building burn and doing nothing. Taken with the rest of the album it makes up an obituary of a life that never felt the urge to live to begin with, elegantly written, objectively reported.