It’s almost like Circa Waves don’t want to foster any sort of hope for their new releases. They’ve done enough by that metric in simply disappointing as much as they have with last year’s What’s It Like Over There? and its desperately mediocre attempt at moving towards more serious, po-faced indie sounds, but between the incredibly quick turnaround time and the fact that this new album is effectively the product of two EPs mashed together (the first of which has been out since early January, at that), it can all feel like an attempt by Circa Waves to cut their losses by doing as much as they can in as short a space of time as possible. For all the statements about being influenced by the release strategies of modern hip-hop, it’s worth keeping in mind that most of trap’s overly long, shoved-out projects are that way to game streaming algorithms, and that feels like the complete opposite of what Circa Waves are about. They started off as a simple and innocent but resoundingly solid indie-pop band on their debut Young Chasers, and the systematic sloughing off of all that across their subsequent releases has only proven to be for the worse in the long run.
And even though Sad Happy is marginally better, it still continues the trend of Circa Waves’ releases feeling less and less necessary as they go on. In this case, the product of jamming two EPs together feels like exactly that, with a tonal drop-off that feels horrendously conspicuous in a way that a band who already have a noticeable dearth of identity can’t sustainably manage. Within their rather narrow range of skills, it’s not wrong to say that Circa Waves can muster up some good moments, especially when they return to their roots, but the lack of frequency there only emphasises how slapdash this album feels as a whole, and it doesn’t feel like much of an effort has been made to mitigate that at all.
Of course, judging Circa Waves often comes down to boiling them down to their core elements, and especially for how willing it is to look back towards their sunnier, more spry indie-pop material, Sad Happy can at least get the execution right in places. The springing, light-dappled energy of Jacqueline and Move To San Francisco inherently have more enjoyability to them thanks to cutting away so much unnecessary flab and zoning in on what made Circa Waves a good band in the first place, and that’s compounded even further by the glossy indie-rock surge of Call Your Name. The droop in that energy that occurs as the album progresses can’t be missed to any degree (there’s no need to have Train To Lime Street as both a minimalist interlude and the penultimate track), but for an album like this in which plucking out individual moments can feel like a more acceptable practice, Sad Happy does produce a handful of solid moments, even if they can be rather sparing. And that is a fairly important caveat to make, especially in the back run of tracks where it becomes clear that Circa Waves’ reversion isn’t permanent, and tracks like the moping acoustic snoozer Battered & Bruised and the whimper of a closing note Birthday Cake serve as a particularly sour reminder that there’s probably going to be more stuff like this going forward, drained production and all. It’s frustrating to see how steep the disconnect is, especially when Circa Waves are demonstrably better than what they’ve provided lately, and when they aren’t fully leaning into their clearest strengths, the disappointment is palpable.
It’s not even like there’s much lyrical depth to serve as any sort of boon either, and when the demarcations of Circa Waves’ sound create such a clear barrier in how that can work and how it can’t, Sad Happy feels even bittier as a result. There’s at least a joyousness and exuberance that comes in the escapism of Move To San Francisco and the lovestruck youthfulness of Call Your Name and Love You More that’s certainly pleasant (as well as the odd reference to the band’s Liverpool home that make for nice touches of detail), but on the whole, Sad Happy’s already prominent feeling of anonymity isn’t helped by writing that’s severely lacking in flair. Be Your Drug and Hope There’s A Heaven feel like the absolute most basic approximations of their themes and semantic fields, and when Kieran Shuddall doesn’t even have that distinct or interesting a voice to tie it together, a lot of this can absolutely reek of indie shovelware with very few concessions made. On top of that, moving the thematic epicentre from feelings of happiness to sadness as is the album’s central gimmick isn’t done all that smoothly or with much of an explanation; the seam where these extra tracks have been stitched onto the initial EP is chronically jarring, and with no real throughline to move between blatant elation and brooding introspection (which really isn’t all that brooding or introspective), the whole thing feels like an exercise in doing something different with interesting intentions, but struggling to clear the first hurdle but just going with it anyway.
It’s not the best move to make, especially when Circa Waves are hurtling into the annals of indie forgettability as it is, but even a handful of tracks that can come close to capturing that original spark can’t save Save Happy from being a tremendously pointless listen. This is the epitome of a band running out of ideas but rather than easing back to build on and hone what they do have, Sad Happy relies on threadbare gimmickry and still gets absolutely nowhere. It’s frustrating as well, especially for a bands like Circa Waves who had a lot of promise when they first rose to prominence, and have just spent their time dismantling said promise in as great a capacity as they can. As such, this does feel like something of a final straw for Circa Waves, but even if it isn’t, they’ll need to come back with something a lot more impressive than this.
For fans of: Catfish And The Bottlemen, The Hunna, The Magic Gang
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Sad Happy’ by Circa Waves is out now on PIAS.