There were never be a case of ‘right place, right time’ more mind-bogglingly prescient than the release of Spanish Love Songs’ Brave Faces Everyone. In any medium. Ever again. Early 2020 saw them release their sophomore effort, full of anguished cries of depression, poverty, addiction and suicide, and—wouldn’t ya know?—just around the corner is a pandemic that puts every one of those themes in full focus for most of the planet, and catapults Spanish Love Songs to heights hitherto unimagined for them, let alone unforeseen.
But had that album not stood on its own merits completely, it’s unlikely the response would’ve been that vigorous. Sure, circumstances can retextualise art hugely, but 2020 was really just the final blow that sent Spanish Love Songs rocketing into the wild blue yonder. On their own, they’ve routinely been capable of alt-punk that’s up there with the very best of them. They can be lyrical without ever getting tangled in the purpleness of their prose, and most importantly, there’s believability coursing through every quiver of Dylan Slocum’s voice. You don’t get this kind of weight from just ‘another one’ of these bands; there’s usually a good starting point for it, but Spanish Love Songs bear such tangible strain, as individuals clearly ground down under the boot of capitalism and just looking to survive.
So after one of the most lauded albums of the year—both in and outside of their own circles—where to next? What does growth look like for Spanish Love Songs, a band who’ve seemingly shot up to a unanimously-agreed apex and planted themselves as this scene’s standard-bearers? Well, any reactions will ultimately depend on what you’re after. If you’re looking to retread the same anguish as Brave Faces Everyone, this might seem like something of a step down, particularly when the raw, ground-level insight was that album’s driving force. But if you want the fallout, reframed in a way that makes sense and presents Spanish Love Songs in a light that a three-year interim will inevitably cast…well, they’ve only gone and done it again.
What’s most striking about No Joy is how, in the wrong hands, this could’ve felt like the most forced, flaccid pivot imaginable. In how lead single Haunted drew all kinds of comparisons to The Killers, that’s really the vibe across the board. There’s way more synth to fill in the gaps left by ebbed-back punk, and an intensity that’s overall dissipated from it. And while that could easily cut the legs off a band who’d stood so tall and proudly, it’s not like Spanish Love Songs would fumble that hard this soon, is it? As a result, No Joy feels far more free and lived-in, where the malaise of modern living is a background to live with rather than an adversary to actively combat. It’s not like the weight is gone completely either; it’s redirected into the monochrome, baleful grind of Pendulum or the hollowed Middle Of Nine and Mutable that wear their negative space front and centre. ‘Going pop’ is not a concern when Spanish Love Songs’ approach to it remains so firmly attached to who they are as a band.
That also encompasses the big leaps of faith into the unknown too, and boy, does No Joy deliver there. It’s an easy way to build a feeling of driving momentum and thrust with this sound, something that’s known all too well here. Haunted is the obvious case, the reintroduction to Spanish Love Songs through glittering synths and struck acoustics to prop up Slocum’s quaking bleat. Elsewhere, there’s Clean-Up Crew and its absolute monster of a hook that’s right up there with the band’s best, and the overall folk-punk-adjacent direction that piles its melody into acoustic guitars that hit notably strongly. It’s why Lifers proves so striking as an opener, as its humming synths and percussion pads break into an almost Springsteen-esque rollick, complete with a lot of cleaner tones and sonic vistas that stretch on for miles. What’s been shed in matted punk angst reveals the heart of Spanish Love Songs’ recalibration, and the boundless horizons they feel they can reach for.
Because at the end of the day, this is still Spanish Love Songs, a band whose capacity for great music really doesn’t have an end, as long as the weight of the world is there to serve as a muse. Speaking generally, No Joy is back to that well, though it too has been retuned somewhat. This time, Slocum’s writing narrows the focus from the broad, generational ‘we’ to those closest to him, not only affected by the same systemic grind, but also his feelings and perspectives that might have only just come to light for them. And in that, the flickers of hope begin to well up. There’s reason to keep going and persevering, where Slocum’s known weariness collides with own empathy and humanity, and there’s a heartbreaking intensity that underscores lines like “So do you think that we’ll outrun it? / Get past the pain of simply being”, or “Just trying to make it to the end of the world / Stay alive out of spite”.
There are plenty more examples that can be pulled out, but it’s far more beneficial to experience them in the context of the album as intended. After all, the knack that goes into Spanish Love Songs’ work is basically unparalleled in their field at this point, even as they try—and fully succeed—at breaking into new ones. Though rather than making a conscious swing for that, No Joy instead places the onus on what feels like natural ground to move into. It’s bigger and glossier, all while remaining steadfast in the humanity of a band for whom that’s where their greatest strengths have always been. Most of all, it’s a path that Spanish Love Songs have followed for another glorious success, and evidence of truly how special this band can be, regardless of the form they take.
For fans of: The Killers, The Wonder Years, Frank Turner
‘No Joy’ by Spanish Love Songs is out now on Pure Noise Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall