I seldom attribute much significance to album covers, as they tend to be either flashy, gimmicky attention grabbers, self-aware in-jokes that become tiresome after the initial effect wears off, nondescript photos of band-members or heavy-handed artistic representations of the CD's central themes.
However, the cover of The Twilights Sad's full-length debut, and indeed the entirety of the album's liner notes, merit further attention than the typical cursory glance, as they elegantly complement the music with an array of images that perfectly suit the mood, tone and even spirit of the album.
It's nothing new to depict tenebrous tableaus in an album's liner notes, but customarily such imagery consists of childish attempts at shock-value, hence the countless scenes of mindless gore and perversity that often accompany inane heavy-metal albums.
The imagery in the liner notes of Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters, however, is far more simple and restrained, and thus far more potent and unsettling than over-the-top grotesquerie could ever hope to be.
There's an underlying morbidity to these images, presenting a macabre collage that could even be termed sinister, and it's in this regard that the drawings and music truly gel together.
Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters is an undeniably dark album, but this darkness is far more restrained than what one has come to expect after an era of trendy Goth-posturing and pretentious attempts at caliginous psychological insights into one's inner blackness. A certain low-keyed, understated sense of menace permeates the entire album, a disturbing streak that serves to set the listener at a constant state of unease.
This isn't to say that the album is devoid of more overt darkness, but even when the CD seems to take a more direct approach, the surface level bleakness, should it manifest itself in the form of sepulchral dirges or dire aural tempests, pales in comparison to the ever-present undercurrent of deeper blackness, a more subtle brand that is in no way diluted by the sonic layers above it.
While the album brilliantly captures this sense of unhinged despair and insidious undertones, it falters when it comes to catchy melodies. The album isn't bereft of hooks, but it certainly places its emphasis on atmospherics at the expense of accessible tunes. While this is certainly a liability, it's hardly an insurmountable one; while in retrospect one may find it difficult to recall a particular hook from the album, Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters merely provides a different sort of moment to remember, experiences that impact upon the listener on a deeper, more visceral level.
Thus one may recall the coda of Cold Days From The Birdhouse, not because of its superficial catchiness but because of the way the tension gradually escalates with each repetition of the phrase, 'and where are your manners,' or one may seize upon the line, 'the kids are on fire in the bedroom,' from That Summer, At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy, a phrase that may not constitute an immediate pop hook but is certainly far more unsettling on a primal level than a typical rock refrain.
Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters is certainly highly accomplished for a debut effort. Most contemporary indie rock acts are expected to have some kind of shallow gimmick to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and in the case of The Twilight Sad their calling card is the combination of accordion playing and James Alexander Graham's thick Scottish accent. While these features may not be as significant as the band's deeper gifts, they do certainly enhance the material. Graham's vocals, rather than sounding like an exotic novelty, profoundly enrich The Twilight Sad's output, while the accordion playing proves to be an integral facet of the band's arrangements.
While there may be a paucity of hooks, there still isn't a single track that I would label filler, as every number has at least something worthwhile to offer. From the mantra-like chanting on Last Year's Rain Didn't Fall Quite So Hard to the few moments when the group tries to rock (like on Mapped By What Surrounded Them), the album may not boast much in the way of diversity but the band's still careful to ensure that no two songs sound the same.
In addition to the pervasive darkness there's also a certain underlying intelligence that informs much of the album, a degree of sophistication that elevates tracks that could be immature throwaways into compelling, nuanced fare. Even when the music flares into a parade of crescendos the band's innate intellectualism preserves a certain sense of subtlety, ensuring that the number's deeper substance remains intact and uncompromised no matter what bombastic tendencies conspire against it.
Thus Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters is a highly impressive debut. The album's melodic shortcomings may prevent it from reaching 'classic' status, but its latent intelligence and inherent darkness ensure that it remains a captivating listen. Many groups attempt to be dark, but few pull it off with the visceral intensity and psychological credibility of The Twilight Sad, and the symmetry between the album's tonality and visual renderings in the liner notes simply reinforces the fact that the band are promoting a very 'real' sense of darkness, one they fully understand and have, even this early in their career, achieved an utter mastery over.
It's difficult to call an album as transparently grim and unnerving as Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters subtle, but thanks to the low-keyed intelligence and innate tastefulness of The Twilight Sad the CD demonstrated considerable restraint in the aggressiveness of its darkness. The album was deeply atmospheric, but it often achieved this effect employing a surprisingly minimalist palette, proving that the band had already achieved a level of sonic mastery that enabled them to elicit a strong emotional and visceral response with just a few well-placed notes.
While this gift for spare yet potent arrangements can be seen as a great asset, it apparently wasn't viewed so charitably by the band themselves, as on their sophomore effort, Forget The Night Ahead, the Twilight Sad have discarded this skill and purged themselves of all minimalist tendencies.
Whereas Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters elegantly instilled a deep-seated sense of menace and danger in its listener, Forget The Night Ahead batters said listener with this tenebrous moodiness for nearly its entirety.
In doing so, however, the band have had to make a few sacrifices. While this relentless onslaught of bleakness and morbidity is very powerful and unquestionably effective in evoking precisely the reaction The Twilight Sad wish to draw from their listeners, it also can make the album a tad monotonous.
The reason for this monotony becomes quite clear, as never has the band's novice status in the hook department been more evident. There is indeed quite a paucity of hooks on Forget The Night Ahead, and when coupled with a profound lack of diversity it's only natural that the album suffers from a sense of repetitiveness.
This isn't a one-note album wherein one's CD player can slip from track to track without the listener even noticing, as there are traits that enable one to differentiate between certain numbers. That only applies to when one is listening to the album, however, as the lack of hooks and distinctiveness between tracks renders Forget The Night Ahead a decidedly difficult CD to retain once it's over. Most tracks simply aren't memorable, and when combined with the album's raging darkness the final product is simply an exhausting experience that leaves the listener with precious little to hold onto in its wake.
This sounds like a critical flaw, and well it might be for some, but it doesn't take into account what a fascinating listen Forget The Night Ahead is while it's playing. The album is truly rich in its pervasively dark, atmospheric character, and while I wouldn't necessarily say that it surpasses its predecessor in this department, what's truly remarkable is that Forget The Night Ahead is atmospheric in a completely different way from Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters.
Nothing is ever hinted at or alluded to on Forget The Night Ahead, nor is anything ever hidden from the listener; rather, one is mercilessly attacked with wave upon wave of darkness and depression from the instant the album begins, offering little in the way of reprieve for the duration of the listening experience. It's easy for one to simply become lost amidst the album's apocalyptic soundscapes, and with Forget The Night Ahead's eloquent moodiness and deftly handled arrangements that isn't really an unattractive proposition.
While I've remarked about the album's repetitive nature, there are still moments that manage to stand out. Thus Reflection Of The Television is a macabre dirge that's markedly reminiscent of Joy Division's style, while The Room is somewhat more emotionally accessible than most of the other tracks.
Nevertheless Forget The Night Ahead isn't a song oriented album, but rather a sweeping musical statement, a powerful roar of darkness and twisted melancholy. The album is truly more than the sum of its parts, as its cumulative effect is one of the more powerful volleys of anguish and depression that one will encounter amidst any discography.
The tone of Forget The Night Ahead isn't a gimmicky or superficial synthesis of trendy darkness, nor is the album ever sensationalistic in its caliginous nature. Forget The Night Ahead is simply darkness at its most real and ugly. I say ugly, and in fact the album does harbor a certain predilection for dissonant passages, but the truth is that even at these moments there's a certain eldritch beauty that animates Forget The Night Ahead, ensuring that even its most discordant chapters remain hypnotic and absorbing on a very deep level.
Ultimately, the darkness of Forget The Night Ahead is very much its own, not even sharing the darkness of Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters. Whereas the band's debut felt like the threat of violence, Forget The Night Ahead is the violence itself, a horrifying eruption of grief and tortured anguish that remains compelling and arresting for every second of its runtime.