Why is pop music so dour these days? Sure we’re all living in a consistently miserable nightmare world of shootings, political embarrassment and human atrocity, but can’t pop music be the one thing that lightens up our day? It’s a complaint that’s been prevalent for at least the last three years, but pop radio is too minimal and underwhelming to hold attention for longer than a few minutes. The world needs something big, bright and bursting with boundless energy to shake it out of a funk. The world needs to hear something that makes them feel alive again. The world needs to, for lack of a better phrase, jump in the pool.
It’s been eight years since Friendly Fires last invited us into their world of propulsive drums, lush synthesizers and endless ecstasy. The world is a very different place, so it’s a wonder as to whether or not the English trio of Ibiza beach-flavored dance rock can find their place in the music scene. They even make a visual note of that on the cover of their third studio album Inflorescent: a beautiful picture of a delicate flower distorted by an electronic screen. But then again, that’s the key to the band’s success: even in the modern age through a futuristic lens, beauty is still beauty.
Make no mistake, Friendly Fires have not lost a single step in the making of their craft. Inflorescent is like the sweetest rum cocktail hitting your lips in endless sunshine. All 11 tracks here feature upbeat horn sections, wavy organ lines, bright synthesizer keys, thumping bass drums and the echoing vocals of frontman Ed Macfarlane. The group goes right back to work on album opener “Can’t Wait Forever,” a bouncy bit of poolside electro-pop peppered with peppy horns and warm strums from guitarist Edd Gibson. Friendly Fire specialize in that warbly sound effect that makes the listener feel like they’re bringing their head up from underwater, adding to their island-tinged sound. “Offline” sounds like it could soundtrack a dance party taking place in a hot tub with its faded synthesizers and relaxed groove, while “Cry Wolf” is a smooth anti-love song that’s only slower because its events are likely taking place near an underwater coral reef. The album has a tighter sonic focus on the tropical vibe heard on the band’s last record Pala, as evident on cuts like “Silhouettes” with its Beach Boys harmonies and background bongos. “Kiss and Rewind” even sounds like a lost cut off of Pala with its jerking rhythm and rolling hi-hats.
There are moments where the band tests themselves by making strange rhythms and trying to build pop songs around them. “Almost Midnight” has a high-pitched guitar loop anchoring warbly bass lines and layers of synths, making it the closest Friendly Fires have come to making what could be described as a traditional electronic song. “Run the Wild Flowers” has a lower bass line and Macfarlane’s delivery of the chorus sounds understated, despite the energetic drums and the tropical organs. Even their cover of Charles B.’s “Lack of Love” finds them jumping between Depeche Mode-like organs and Macfarlane’s boy-band vocals. It’s a much more electronic than their prior efforts that make for a more lush and relaxed effort, like the soundtrack for a lost Sega Dreamcast game. The only questionable effort here is “Heaven Let Me In,” which starts and stops but never really rolls into a crescendo of any kind. And that’s a key skill of Friendly Fires, lush build-ups to a release that washes over the listener.
All three band members are well into their 30s and yet they have the lyrics of wide-eyed lovesick college kids. “Kiss and Rewind” plays out a guy’s fantasy to fall in love for the first time again (“Leave the past in the past/There’s no wasting this chance/We can make this right/They say passion can’t last forever”). The same theme is shared on “Offline,” though it’s more general than romantic (“There’s an opportunity to make mine/I can do this, I can see through this/It’s becoming clearer to me with open eyes”). Romance and fantasy are the bread and butter to Inflorescent and the music certainly helps the lyrics from being entirely cringy. Hearing something like “Run the Wild Flowers” and its Young Adult novel-levels of text might cause a cavity (“A place that we can’t find/Can still be a place that we design/If we reconnect the wires/Dive into the dream behind our eyes”) but the band sells it. The tropical music and bright music help sell a song called “Love Like Waves.”
Maybe Inflorescent doesn’t fit the mold of modern electronic and pop. Perhaps it’s an album out of time and out of place, but that doesn’t take away from its energy or infectious fun. It doesn’t have the rougher, garage-rock touch of their self-titled debut nor the hard-knocking world drums of Pala. Instead, it’s Friendly Fires honing in on their influences and synthesizing them into their own sound. It’s unfair to call this a comeback album considering the band never had a falling out or loss to redeem. It’s another party with an open invitation, jump in.