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The most striking measurement of Have a Nice Life’s growth over the past couple years can be made by playing the new version of “Defenestration Song”—a high point of the Connecticut post-punk outfit’s second album, The Unnatural World—against the original version from 2010’s Voids cassette. Previously stringy and pale, the song is now brawny and dark. The bass line, once a bubbling throwback to Joy Division’s “Walked in Line”, has become a flood of sludge. Drums and guitar claw at each other. And the vocals seep through the sour atmosphere like a poisonous fog. An entire dimension has been added to it—and the same can be said of Have a Nice Life as a whole.
Founded by core members Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga, Have a Nice Life came on strong with their 2008 debut, Deathconsciousness, then seemed to retreat in the face of an imminent breakthrough. It’s taken six years to issue a proper follow-up, but their central message hasn’t changed: Existence is bleak, gallows humor undergirds it, and sometimes wallowing in that sick paradox is the best revenge. But instead of sporting the sort of smart-ass song titles found on Deathconsciousness (“Holy Fucking Shit: 40,000”, “Waiting for Black Metal Records to Come in the Mail”), The Unnatural World submerges most of the duo’s bitter irony, or at least the irony, leaving nothing but the bitter.
For all its unrelenting gloom, The Unnatural World oozes beauty. On “Burial Society”, a rolling blackout of congealed noise only barely clothes a sumptuous, lonesome vocal melody—one that’s as full of rage as it is resignation. Smothered in sorrow, “Guggenheim Wax Museum” plods and throbs in time with some cosmic, cancerous organ. Hints of shoegaze gauziness and industrial pneumatics float through “Unholy Life”, even as “Dan and Tim, Reunited by Fate” bypasses what would appear to be cheeky self-mythology in favor of dour, murky balladry. When the track’s skeletal tangle of beats and static finally disintegrates, all that’s left is hellish echo.
“Cropsey”, named after Staten Island’s eerie, mad-slasher urban legend, opens with an even more chilling sample: testimony from a young boy named Johnny, an inmate of the notoriously abusive Pennsylvania mental institution Pennhurst that was featured in the 1968 exposé Suffer the Little Children. Accordingly, the song’s spiraling synths and ghostly wails evoke stolen innocence, nerve-deadened dread, and cries for a rescue that may never come. Rather than feeling like morbid exploitation, “Crospey” slowly morphs into a goth-dub uproar that tears loose a heart of tenderness and empathy. Hope, however, is still nowhere in sight.
The album’s matched pair of drumless tracks, “Music Will Untune the Sky” and “Emptiness Will Eat the Witch”, are equal parts brooding interlude and mocking reprieve. They hover over the rest of the songs like an unspoken, fatalistic threat—an ominous horizon that can’t be escaped from. Where fellow travelers such as the Soft Moon and Cold Cave religiously exult in the darkwave tradition, Have a Nice Life use The Unnatural World to distance themselves from any kind of retroactive pull. Sinuous instead of rigid, bloody instead of embalmed, the album refuses to be frozen in time or place. Instead it moves, and moves others with it. - Jason Heller