Sky Larkin - Motto
Motto: one of those pleasingly compact words that is dense with signification, connoting both an authentic code for living, and something slightly trite and clichéd, a crass condensation of a heart-full of ideas, expectations, and beliefs. A motto can be both a clarifying optic through which we peer at the world, and a glib aphorism by which it is contracted and narrowed. Choosing this strange word as the title for their third long-player, Sky Larkin grapple with that dichotomy throughout Motto; an album which feverishly explores the vagaries of memory, self-definition, and the trauma of ever-shifting personal allegiances, via the gorgeously realised rush of unaffected indie-rock which is the flesh of this impressive record.
Said dichotomy is, appropriately enough, the subject matter of titular opener (and first single) ‘Motto’. Rumbling in with a sumptuously ominous, reverb-drenched guitar riff, the song swiftly gathers itself into a propulsive Daydream Nation-esque riot of melody, whilst singer/guitarist Katie Harkin lets rip into the phoniness of "Sloganeers bending my ears". Assailing its title, Harkin’s lyrics in ‘Motto’ sardonically deconstruct the emptiness of what she astutely dubs "fridge magnet phrases" by way of repeated phonetic estrangement ("with a motto to mutter") and sourly indicated inverted commas, reductive paraphrase: '"If I had a motto I would tell you first / I’ve never suffered from a lack of sensation, just a terrible thirst”’. Musically and lyrically it is an insistent joy of a first song, which sets the standard for the rest of the album.
‘Newsworthy’ counters the venom, and sharpens the focus to a more personally specific sphere which nonetheless still quivers with a barely contained frustration and fury: "darling, I'm drowning / the cacophony is coming for me". The introduction of the desperate and slightly unsettling melancholy that colours ‘Newsworthy’ "we know where these bones should go, we know!") is, evidently, no accident. For threaded through Motto is a silvery filament of loss and mourning, which in certain songs becomes woven into a tougher, more robustly elegiac fibre. Playing on the fiscal and sentimental connotations of its title ‘Treasury’, Motto’s fourth song excavates the fragility and fickleness of memory ("until it's halted on my behalf / I'll keep all you enhance"); whilst new single ‘Loom’ confronts a catastrophic emotional haunting ("you’re always in the room / a personal ghoul"), in which the palpable sense of loss and fear seep like language through the suddenly visible larynxes of the guitars and drums.
Likewise, ‘Tarn’ (oop North parlance for ‘lake’, btw) stages its own bereavement-saturated tableaux ("sat by the tarn, I learn the lakes are the fingers and the mountain the palm / Fake love on the radio, and kids and tongues in cars"). Soundtracked by a shimmering devastation of sighing chord progressions and abortive rather than pregnant pauses, ‘Tarn’ is a hook-ridden, tumultuous ride through a bruised and aching sub-rural landscape. Similarly, ‘Frozen Summer’ (I’m relentlessly reminded by this title of that gorgeous wreck of a Bob Lind song, ‘Cool Summer’), narrates seasonal paradox as though it is the first time anyone has conceived of using this most potent of juxtapositions.
Knowingly utilising the tokenistic imagery of both celebration and extinction, ‘Bravo Dodo’ features impressively clanging guitars, dextrous vocal acrobatics, and, in a (characteristically for this album) elliptical turn of phrase - "whilst we who refuse to ossify bloom" – more proof, if any was needed, that Harkin is a masterful lyricist, and one who knows the power of omission and elision. The motifs of waste and decay persist in ‘Overgrown’; tangentially (to this ear, at least) referencing ‘A Day in the Life’, the song opens with the cryptic (and subsequently unelucidated): "in the hills above Bradford / there was a horrid accident". ‘Overgrown’ makes this sickening image of an incomprehensible slice of violence a canvas upon which a lament for prematurely-stunted relations is unfurled: "I thought I'd lost the only friend who could help me grow".
Motto comes three years after Sky Larkin’s last LP, Kaleide, and, whilst it retains the taut lyricism and contagious musicianship of its predecessor, eclipses it by some distance. Harkin still sounds like she comes from Olympia, WA, rather than Leeds, UK, but her searing vocals and bristling guitar have achieved a new authority on this record, lit up in conjunction with the notably more assured work of new(ish) second guitarist Nile Marr, bassist Sam Pryor, and drummer Nestor Matthews. Produced by John Goodmanson, who (aside from having previously worked on Sky Larkin’s debut album, The Golden Spike) also collaborated with Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Los Campesinos, and others of a similar ilk, it is perhaps not all that surprising that this album sounds the way it does. It is not only in Harkin’s vocal intonation and tone that Motto evokes an emphatically American strand of punk-infused indie-rock; the musicianship on this album is also particularly redolent of All Hands on the Bad One–era Sleater Kinney, which – like Sky Larkin’s Motto - was markedly more cleaned up and less scuzzy than their earlier albums. I can also hear Liz Phair circa Exile in Guyville in this record, and - hauling us back over the Atlantic - ditto (the far more contemporary) Standard Fare, though both these echoes are no less pertinent for being (probably) accidental.
Shatteringly exquisite last song, ‘Que Linda (Wake to Applause)’- ‘que Linda’ being Spanish for ‘how beautiful’ – does not flinch from closing the deal, replete as it is with ethereal hall-of-mirrors vocal echolocations, and deeply melancholic, reverb-saturated keys. “I'm deaf and dumb like a mail order bride / You're smart and inexplicably by my side”, Harkin hesitantly insists, corralling this record at its outermost edge to a (how) beautiful point of stillness and muffled depth. Bravo Dodo.