Your reaction to the lead single from Warpaint’s third album will have considerable bearing on how you feel about the rest of it. ‘New Song’ is the overtly poppy flagship single on an album that doesn’t really do instant gratification; if you loved it, you probably won’t get on with the album. Heads Up is a lush and complex record that wants nothing to do with easy classification. Some will call it scattershot, others eclectic and ambitious. It’s altogether a different beast than 2014’s self-titled LP, pushing the quartet’s sound in the direction of a Radiohead-esque disavowal of guitar music, albeit a one that doesn’t go all the way.
What that means is a move towards electronics and soundscapes that comes at the expense of Theresa Wayman and Emily Kokal’s primary instrument. Guitars provide texture and accompaniment on the likes of opener ’Whiteout’, but little else. In fact, much of the album’s front five has its focus on Jenny Lee Lindberg’s formidable bass presence; she adds significant heft to ‘By Your Side’, contributing greatly to the sense of unease that rises to a fever pitch before culminating in a noisy coda.
Bass, keys and Stella Mozgawa’s hip-hop-indebted drums are much more to the fore than on previous full-lengths, key components of early highlight ‘The Stall’ (which would slot in nicely on Hail to the Thief in a different key and with its vocal lowered a couple of octaves) and the six-minute centrepiece ‘So Good’, its salacious, longing lyrics (“I want you now / I want you all over me / Can’t you tell me all your secrets? I’ll tell you all mine”) set to a soundtrack of thumping rhythms, sparse guitars and an effortlessly funky bassline that is somehow even more effective when the song enters spacious dream-pop territory around three minutes in.
It rides that wave for the other three before making way for the bare-bones, deeply atmospheric ‘Don’t Wanna’, its predecessor’s polar opposite in many respects. It acts as a bridge to the more ‘traditional’ sound,ng second half, with ‘Don’t Let Go’ taking the album’s air of intensity down a few notches for an acoustic guitar-led heartbreaker. The title track seems to be heading in a similar direction until its piano intro fades and Lindberg’s bass crashes into the mix, immediately drawing the listener in for a high-tempo thrill ride that marks the album’s climax. ‘Above Control’ and ‘Today, Dear’ bring the album to a close, the former’s infectious rhythms contrasting wonderfully with the latter’s gentle waltz and understated delivery.
Heads Up is the sound of a band exploring new territories without stopping to consider the album’s cohesion. It’s this sort of hell-for-leather dedication that has brought Warpaint to where it is in 2016. It’ll polarise some fans of their previous material and outright drive away some others, but its 51-minute running time allows the band to show that they have absolute confidence in who they are and what they do, and, in doing so, produce an album that is primed for longevity.
review by Gareth O’Malley