Mesh’s new album, Looking Skyward is an awesome collection of well-composed and arranged synthpop songs that will have you singing along and bopping your head in no time. It’s a worthy follow up to the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Automation Baby, which was released in 2014, and another brick in an incredible body of work.
As part of their songwriting process for Looking Skyward, Mark Hockings and Richard Silverthorn used portable recorders to gather a variety of environmental sounds, which inspired and informed their songwriting process. Of course, the lyrics (is there a finer musical storyteller than Mark Hockings?) and melodies are first-rate – all that you’d expect from the best Mesh album. Hockings’ voice is in fine form, sounding even better than I remember it. And his lyrics are even more clever than I would have expected. Mesh is soaring high on Looking Skyward!
Here are some highlights:
My Protector – This thoroughly enjoyable mid-tempo song opens Looking Skyward with a bang. It tells the story of a significant other or a supreme being that protects him from the consequences of his own actions. It’s an interesting bit of storytelling: “You are my protector/my home/I’m nothing without you/You’re my deflector/I know/nothing can’t get through. You feel the feelings for me/so I don’t have to face the things I do.” I love the buzzy synths in the chorus and the layered production, which features plenty of enjoyable little touches. The lyrics of My Protector seem to imply that we are increasingly living our lives and expressing our relationships through the tiny screens in front of our faces: “Life’s changing scenes/played behind screens/We’re all someone’s hopes and dreams/caught in the light.”
Tactile – This mid-tempo track continues the theme of protection. This time, the protagonist is speaking of someone who has been by their side and supported them despite all of their character flaws: “You take the whole man without condition/You wrote the whole plan around my vision/And I’m destructive/too much ambition/You give me comfort and ammunition.” Ultimately this song appears to be about betrayal. After recounting how this person has always been a kindred spirit to him, he then turns to reflect on all of the lies the other person told that are now swirling around his head. “It’s just so hard to feed you/win the world is crashing down around my ears.” Tactile has a beautiful arrangement and features harmony in the chorus. Very cool!
The Last One Standing – This is the requisite dance floor filler on Looking Skyward. Its driving tempo and uplifting lyrics encourage whomever the protagonist is speaking to to keep pushing pushing ahead, no matter what – because we need them to do so. One level, it appears to be speaking about the symbiotic relationship between artists and their fans. Fans need the artist for the enjoyment and escape their music provides, while the artist cannot create music without the support of their devoted fans. Standout elements of this anthemic tune include a little dubstep flourish at the beginning of the chorus and the way in which Hockings’ voice stair-steps from one note to the next in the middle of a single word.
The Traps We Made – This song opens with a very anthemic sound, with a point-counterpoint between an electric piano and the lead synth. It features a soaring, layered arrangement that features strings, piano and a variety of understated percussive sounds. This song speaks of the mistakes we make when we’re young, which may cost us more than we expect later in life. You know, the mean things blurted out in anger that can never be taken back, the thoughtless acts and so forth. The lyrics are very philosophical. “You didn’t hate me/when I said the things that can’t be brushed away/It had to end up somewhere.” and “If I could make up the days (that have) run away/you’ve got to know that I would.”
Kill Your Darlings – This is the first single from Looking Skyward, which was released about a month before the album lands. A sparse lead guitar starts things off in very un-Mesh like fashion, but within a matter of seconds, it’s followed by a big, buzzy lead synth that carries the melody. It’s got a driving, mid-tempo beat with syncopated synth accents that will have you tapping your feet in unison. Hockings’ pointed lyrics don’t speak of killing someone, but rather someTHING – our deeply-held assumptions of how the world is supposed to work. All bets are off. No one is faithful. We prey on the weak. Everyone’s a bad man. Under the circumstances, he recommends that we “breathe in the hurricane (because)/you can start all over again.”
Iris – This marvelous 90-second instrumental is a personal favorite. It starts out with some weird environmental noises. Within seconds, a toy piano joins the arrangement, playing a creepy lullaby, which is then joined by an electric piano that sounds like its notes are being played backwards. As the arrangement builds to a quiet crescendo, suddenly, a strong, synthesized industrial beat intrudes, followed by a slightly different echo. It’s hard to explain, but it’s absolutely stunning to listen to at higher volume or on a good pair of headphones. Iris then fades away far too quickly, leaving me wanting more. This is something more than the typical Mesh intro or outro, but not quite a full-fledged 3-4 minute song. Whatever it is, it’s AMAZING!
Runway – This uptempo song is one of my favorites on Looking Skyward. It features a strong, fast beat, with a bright, buzzy lead synth playing a progression of notes that sounds like something out of a techno song. After the songs that have preceded it on this album, Runway injects fresh energy with a very engaging tune. The lyrics speak of a protagonist who is stuck in the air and can’t seem to reach the ground. It’s a metaphor for two people who just can’t seem to get together. The protagonist is apologetic (“I wish I fell to earth for you/it’s just the best that I can do”). This is one of those songs you’ll be humming to yourself hours after listening to it. A beautiful arrangement and some intriguing storytelling from Messrs. Hockings and Silverthorn!
Before the World Ends – A striking balled, Before the World Ends Opens with a duet between a guitar providing the rhythm and a shimmering synth laying down the melody. The lyrics explore the idea that some of the things we do we’re inevitably driven to do or say. Too often, these acts hurt others. He feels guilty, and laments “Before this world ends/until the dark descends/I will try take to make amends.” This is a gorgeous, heartfelt song that may make a tear fall from the corner of your eye. You don’t normally equate Mesh with this kind of evocative tune, but here it is – in all its glory. Well done!
Two + 1 – “Who fills the space between us? Who takes the love inside us?” asks Mark Hockings as this mid-tempo song begins. The lyrics suggest that something comes between us that “makes the gap seem wider” and dulls our will to try to make things work. “I always feel like/like there’s more than two of us here/between me and you.” Two + 1 has a gorgeous, layered arrangement, paired with a bit of storytelling that will make you reflect on your own relationships – and what may be creating distance between you and the ones you love. This isn’t a maudlin tune, but a beautiful exploration of the enormous and often hard to navigate gray areas that surround the significant relationships of our adult lives.
There Must be a Way – A quiet, slightly creepy intro to this song gives way to Hockings singing about another troubled relationship: “I couldn’t blame you/because I know you’re blameless/But you’d be mistaken/If you think I’m aimless/I’ve got so much work to do/to make you feel what I go through.” The other person in the relationship seems to be completely oblivious to his deep but confused feelings. This song features vocoding effects on Hockings’ voice in the chorus, applied to beautiful effect – not as something bolted on, as it seems to be in many synthpop songs.
Once Surrounded – The closing number on Looking Skyward begins with sampled sounds, a guitar and a buzzy synth, and builds to an anthemic, minor key, layered melody. The lyrics speak of someone who grasped for the brass ring of celebrity, and is now on the other side of that wave – drugged out, washed up, forgotten and disillusioned. Hockings sings about how hard it is to keep your footing as the tsunami of pressures that accompany celebrity come crashing in: “What does it take to do it right/to keep the memories when it’s always such a fight/You have to walk the path/as the tide is coming in/When will you start to see the light/when it’s so dark that a candle would seem bright.” Another marvelous combination of song composition and lyrics.
Looking Skyward is among Mesh’s best albums in recent memory. It’s exciting to see Mark Hockings and Richard Silverthorn trying to stretch in new directions, while building on the sound and style that brought them to the point where they are – one of the pre-eminent bands in the world of synthpop. Their spot at the pinnacle of this genre is well-deserved.
Kudos on another awesome addition to your impressive body of music, Mark and Richard!