“I’m not going to hurt you ’cause I’m flirting with you,” Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth confronts listeners on “Sad Person,” a track that equates love with disease, an addiction, a rush of cocaine. A song later, she’s crooning, “I adore life … Do you adore life?” It becomes an anthem, a blatantly positive affirmation, contrasted with joltingly intense, jagged post-punk crescendos.
Savages’ Adore Life is every bit as ferocious as 2013’s inescapably hyped Silence Yourself (Savages were called “saviors of rock ’n’ roll” based on that release), but it replaces their earlier nihilism with a surprisingly sweet vulnerability. It’s a shift that bassist Ayse Hassan says is intentional.
“For our second record, we wanted it to be a progression of what we are as a band. We had been touring for three years and [were] shaped by all the experiences we had on tour. We felt more open toward audiences. We felt like we could talk about a subject matter like love, and explore that in a way that Savages would,” says Hassan.
And how is it that Savages, a London four-piece in which everyone wears black and a don’t-mess-with-this expression, explores love? “Contrast. To have a beautiful lyric supported by dissonant guitar sounds or feedback.”
For Silence Yourself, Savages recorded almost entirely live, creating a “snapshot of the band at that moment in time,” says Hassan. She describes that output as “raw, slightly chaotic in the sense that tempos aren’t perfect, but they’re not supposed to be. It’s very natural.”
But for Adore Life, which was recorded at RAK Studios in London last April, each member put down her tracks individually to “find exactly the right sounds and have time to focus on our instruments separately,” says Hassan. “We’re so passionate about what we do. Each person influences where a song will go. We are a band that makes the music we want to make, and we do that with very little compromise.”
This calculated approach fits with the entire process of Adore Life, which was workshopped through a three-week residency in New York last year. Though Adore Life may be focused and deliberate, the sound is still naturalistic and perhaps even more exposed. “You can hear the slides, and hear that it’s not perfect,” Hassan explains of her bass-playing. “What I want to represent is the fact that as long as you love what you do, and enjoy your instrument and making music, it’s fine to find your own way in terms of how you play. There’s not a wrong or right way.”
This statement of self-acceptance and belief in one’s art is incredibly important to Hassan, who identified as “exceptionally shy” when she first started playing with Savages. “I used to close my eyes a lot more than I do now. It was my way of dealing with, in my mind, not imagining that I was the focus in terms of being on stage,” she says.
Equal parts Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division and PJ Harvey, Savages channels — at times — The Woods-era Sleater-Kinney after that band toured with Pearl Jam and started playing big, broad and relentless jams. It can be hard to listen to. The opposite of background music, Savages demands attention.
Their sound is frequently called “aggressive,” but that feels dismissive and imprecise. Men throw their bodies at one another, draw blood and cause concussions. That’s called “sport.” But when women play instruments and use their voices in a way that’s not entirely passive, they are regarded as an anomaly.
The press has treated Savages as such, asking them questions about being “women in music,” and calling them out for rejecting earlier management who tried to shape their sound into something Savages didn’t want it to be.
“Saying ‘they’re strong women’ because we’re playing musical instruments — it’s a bit patronizing, isn’t it?” drummer Fay Milton chastised U.K.’s The Independent.
The concept of “strong women” is redundant, journalist Ann Friedman recently wrote in the Washington Post. “I struggle to name a single weak woman I know. And yet when ‘strong women’ are singled out as exceptional, weakness is the implied norm,” Friedman writes. “‘Strong’ is synonymous with ‘woman.’ We know them. We are them. We raise them.”
Savages are not “strong women.” They are not “aggressive women.” They are women who make music that touches on the brutality and kindness and contrast in life. They adore life. And they hope you will, too.