For their fifth album, White Lies largely sticks to what it does best while continuing on the pop path continually glimpsed at in all of their previous work. If you jumped straight from their first release in 2008, To Lose My Life…, to Five, you might get minor whiplash. That first album earned the band comparisons to the likes of Joy Division because of their relatively ominous or gloomy themes (the first song on that record is called “Death” and while it is amazing, it’s quite an introduction), as well as singer Harry McVeigh’s distinctively deep, gothic vocals. However, each album since then has gotten progressively lighter in sound and themes, as well as inching closer and closer to a pop sound that feels further from Joy Division and closer to, well, New Order.
While Five continues steadily on up that pop mountain, the album as a whole feels very comfortable and familiar. If you are perfectly content for White Lies to stay as they are, for each album to sound very much alike, then you won’t be bothered by this element of the album. However, I do wish that the punch and the ability to craft rousing hooks and escalating epic moments that is exhibited on at least a few tracks on every White Lies record would one day reside in every song—or nearly every song—on an album.
On Five the best moments can largely be found in the second half of the album. The opener “Time to Give” is a slow burn entry into the album and its tone, and it manages to move you along a wave of mild pop synths so well that you don’t mind the seven-and-a-half minute length.
The album doesn’t significantly pick up again though until “Tokyo” halfway through. The few tracks in-between are all fine but are not immediately memorable in any significant way. “Tokyo,” which is perhaps the most pop they’ve ever been, and perhaps the most optimistic as well. The bombastic, joyful chorus looks good on them, at least after so many tracks which almost get you there but decide to stay just a touch subdued. “Tokyo” is followed up by “Jo?” a uniquely energetic song essentially about the feeling you get watching those text bubbles appear and disappear, and “Denial” which is a touch less immediately intriguing but is exciting and big enough to keep up this late momentum. The penultimate track “Believe It” has an interestingly cynical point of view—the singer basically spouts the view that therapists just find ways to milk you of your money and don’t actually help much—but the music itself is very catchy and while not totally related to the subject matter, is fun enough so that the disconnect doesn’t matter.
The album goes out on a slower note, with the fully dark “Fire and Wings” which, with lyrics like “your rifle came before your name/Our mothers share a slice of hell,” seems to be about the violence perpetrated by men, most often (in America, anyway) in the form of school or public shootings. McVeigh’s voice here shifts itself slightly into new territory, balancing on the line between the classic goth-theatrical which he does so well, and something gentler and subtly ominous. The song is more pared down than you would expect, which serves it well in lending a respectful touch to a heavy topic and in assisting a smooth album fade-out.
Five ultimately does have those few songs like “Tokyo,” “Jo?” and “Time to Give” that stand out among the crowd, but with many of the tracks surrounding these songs rising only to “good” instead of “great,” the moments of greatness get a little lost in the sea. White Lies is still doing what it does best, and still inching towards their highest potential, but they might do better to move more than an inch forward on the next record.