The Hordern Pavillion, 08/09/17
There’s a war on cynicism and you’re all invited.
It’s hard to find fault with a band so tangibly at the top of their game.
Gang of Youths now have a number one album, greeted with widespread critical acclaim, and they commence a sold-out show at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion with an anecdote from lead-singer/songwriter David Le’aupepe that headlining this very venue is the realisation of a childhood dream. You could say they’ve made it. And the passion in their performance shows they’re out to prove they’ve earned these milestones.
Opening with ‘What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out?’ and the expansive ‘Atlas Drowned’, the stage prowess their success is demanding is on display in the euphoric instrumental stabs that characterize both songs, complete with chests being pounded, guitars being held aloft and untamed shapes of backlit hair. Consummate frontman Le’aupepe doesn’t fail to deliver on energy, alternating rock posing with trademark sassy moves, the intensity in his facial expressions reading right across the venue and the crowd attentive to his every motion. Le’aupepe raises his guitar and points upward – he might need more guitar in his mix. The crowd take it as another cue to cheer.
The exultant tones in their recordings are successfully rendered live, and any missteps in unison are quickly overcome with well-executed crescendos. ‘Fear and Trembling’ and ‘Sjamboska’ demonstrate that the band are capable of giving even more dynamic range to their songs in live form, with brooding vocals giving way to ecstatic rhythmic bursts that make landfall like a wave, receding as quickly as they came.
A notable point at this gig however comes as Le’aupepe delivers an impassioned speech against the cynics he sees in the world: authority figures, bullies, internet trolls, anyone that doesn’t like vulnerability or ambition. He yells to these modern manifestations: you’re not cynics, you’re f**king arseholes that don’t know it yet. The crowd erupts in applause.
This sentiment is no surprise – the latest album ‘Go Farther In Lightness’ is unashamedly earnest, and lyrics like “It’s okay / Don’t fear / Go be part of the new sincere” are inviting listeners to join a fight in pushing vulnerability past the burden of being judged.
Looking at the album in isolation, there are moments that this approach appears saccharine. While we’ve become accustomed to Le’aupepe sculpting deft poetic phrases, lines like “The heart is a muscle and I wanna make it strong!” stand out with an almost irksome naivety. There are two reasons that this sentimentality is off-putting, and the first requires cynicism. The present-day cynical aren’t just the powerful, the ignorant and the thuggish. They’re also those that figured out how often they’re being marketed to and being evangelized; they are fed vulnerabilities only to be sold the solution. In particular, the target demographic could be standing at a GOY show. Being critical or emotionally detached might once have been a mask of cool, but it could just as easily be an incisive response to overt sentiment and symbolism as contrivance, to marketing or doctrine disguised as heart.
The second reason though seems to be the one that GOY are fighting to reveal: that the automatic reaction to deride unsophisticated sentimentality might actually be a fear of being ‘human’. Of being vulnerable and empathetic. Le’aupepe intros ‘The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows’ as a song about allowing these things more human, and the band are a cohesive unit in bringing it to life; the song is a highlight of the set.
Le’aupepe has mentioned author David Foster Wallace in past interviews, and you can see the threads drawn from his work.
David FW wrote: “what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”
David L sings: “If everything is temporary, I will bear the unbearable, terrible triteness of being.”
There’s no lack of sophistication there. As the song ends it’s as though this line reverberates around the building.
And as GOY do play ‘The Heart is a Muscle’, the crowd are in rapture. The lyrics are being screamed by hip twenty-something men on the shoulders of hip twenty-something men.
On one hand it’s a softening of the ‘edge’ of a band whose first release surrounded them in larger-than-fiction rock mystique – love, God, mortality, suicide, rehab.
On the other hand, intentional or not, it’s rock-cool being used to push sincerity beyond judgement and condescension. All the hallmarks of rock audacity are there, right down to guitarist Joji Malani smoking a cigarette while playing – a particularly ironic symbol considering the band’s public connection with cancer. It could (ironically) be these paradoxes that make GOY so widely resonant.
If any of this seems a challenge to the authenticity of the GOY project, at the Hordern Le’aupepe had already delivered the counter-argument, in ballad form.
Le’aupepe sits at the keys and his voice is flawless, of an era both now and bygone and heavy with emotion. He keeps the crowd in by revealing back-stories that are honest and poignant. The couple whose personal tragedy inspired the song ‘Persevere’ are right there in the venue, and there’s a surprise performance by one half of the couple, Dave Andrew, on keys. ‘Knuckles White Dry’ is preceded by Le’aupepe’s account of car rides home from his ex-wife’s cancer treatments, the car being the place in which the armour came off and they cried through the realisation of what they were really in for. The interlude ‘Le Symbolique’ follows, and clever lighting choices are in some subtle way evocative of a night-drive… Maybe it’s you in the car, maybe you’ve just dropped your lover off after yet another day of treatments, and now it’s just you and the car and the night and an overwhelming contemplation of the finite nature of beauty and life.
Gang of Youths close the set, as they close the latest album, on the track ‘Say Yes to Life’, and with Malani’s guitar providing soaring melodic counterpoints, it’s a fitting climax. It’s a return to the rally cry for emotion over cynicism.
Back in 2016 at Splendour in the Grass, Le’aupepe ended the GOY set yelling the words: “Believe in something.”
It seems like that ‘something’ is now much more defined.
And it resonates.
thank you sydney. that was unbelievable.📹 @patrickrohl yeahsure.
Posted by Gang of Youths on Saturday, 9 September 2017
Watching the crowd raise their middle fingers in time to ‘Magnolia’, you get the feeling that if anyone was to try and criticise them, the response would be resounding: “F**k off, I’m busy being vulnerable right now.”