Hailing from Glasgow, Scotland, The Twilight Sad has often been compared to its Canadian counterpart, Arcade Fire. On this particular album, however, the vast orchestral sound that has become its signature is significantly less pronounced in favor of a sparse, industrial atmosphere.
James Graham’s unhindered Scottish accent and soaring vocals are the perfect compliment to this type of music. The lyrics on this album, on the other hand, are generally dismal, and the guitars are distorted under heavy synths. The places and situations evoked are grim and uninviting, establishing a moody quality that’s more prominent than in previous albums.
The first song on the album is the leisurely morose “Alphabet.” The refrain of the song is ironic because the singer tells someone he is so sick to death of the sight of you now / safe to say never wanted you more. A drowned-out and unrecognizable guitar underscores the melancholy indecision of the lyrics. A slower song might not be the most intuitive way to introduce No One Can Ever Know, but in this case it works. Unlike some of the album’s later brash and aggressive songs, “Alphabet” is a mellow yet solid choice to kick-start the album.
The second track, “Dead City,” is significantly more grotesque than the first. The nightmarish imagery of the lyrics takes center stage against a gloomy synth reminiscent of The Cure or Joy Division. The album title takes its name from this track, in which the singer, James Graham, wails an unnerving no one can ever know.
“Sick,” the first single from the album, follows and is more traditionally guitar and drum-heavy than the previous tracks, even as it retains the lyrical solemnity of the overall album. This song easily has one of the most haunting subjects of the entire record — a person struggling with an unknown illness or injury. James Graham sings the refrain, you look so frail / you know, with considerable emotion and forthrightness.
The next track, “Don’t Move,” is effects-laden and synth-heavy, straying away from the raw feeling of the previous songs, which make it weaker. Though this particular track does not stand out, the power of the lyrics is so pronounced on the rest of the record that the language requires special attention to allow the depth of experience necessary to connect with the songs. The listener can thereby forgive a few missteps.
“Nil” returns to the original sentiment of the other tracks and also revisits the sound that popularized The Twilight Sad. It begins with an organ and progresses to the grand orchestration of earlier albums. This track highlights the experimentation happening on this album and the great departure from the band’s comfort zone.
In contrast, “Don’t Look at Me” sounds like a cover of The Cure, as the influence of ’80s gothic-synth-rock is present on the track. It is high-energy and despondent, danceable and shoegaze, all at once.
“Not Sleeping,” in contrast, takes a simpler approach as a mellow, languorous tune with a steady beat and a choral sound where Graham’s vocals and ability to weave a tale are highlighted by sparse instrumentation.
The second single, “Another Bed,” is probably the most mainstream and consumable. The music is less distorted than the previous tracks and the lyrics are not as downhearted. It is much freer, less enclosed and not as anxious as previous songs, and the effect makes it sound less overwrought than some of the more somber tracks.
The closer, “Kill It in the Morning,” is fast-paced, but reflects the overall mood of the album with its distortions and synth-heaviness. At its start, it sounds almost like twisted carnival music but progresses into the synthesized indie-folk that permeates the album.
Though this album marks a distinctly different direction from previous efforts, the sound provides something unique and interesting for the band’s listeners and for audiences of indie music in general. The album is definitely rewarding for its precise instrumentation, poignant lyrics and atmospheric quality.