Every now and then you get hit with shocking realisations about local groups: some of them are actually brilliant. Not just in “ah for a bunch of lads from Fairview, they sure can write a tune” manner, but in a real proper sense. The North and South have produced a few of these: And So I Watch You From Afar, Hozier, Rubberbandits and Lisa Hannigan, to name a few. Given how exclusive of a club this really is though, it’s a marvellous joy to encounter them in the wild. Dublin’s Shrug Life is one of those groups. Bouncy, energetic Gang of Four music contrasted against acerbic, witty and wonderful lyrics. They are impossibly infectious and improbably good and their debut LP, the perfectly named ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, is a testament to this.
Probably the greatest strength of the group is Danny Carroll’s lyrics. Intensely personal as they are socially conscious, the words perfectly capture the ennui of your 20s and all the minor compromises and defeats that fester and rot your sense of self. A feeling of hopelessness and isolation as you end up trapped in dead-end call centre jobs (‘Temp Jobs’) or slave to a handheld black mirror (‘Never Bored’). But the best lyrical cut is ‘Your Body’. This is an honest to God masterpiece and high up in the list of the greatest songs ever written on the subject of abortion. Musically jubilant but emotionally devastating. It tells a story of a young woman’s budget trip from Liverpool to Dublin following an abortion. It is a tapestry of sorrow, compassion and seething rage with a hook that manages to be unforgettable and profoundly upsetting:
Yeah, I had a really nice holiday, thanks for asking.
The rest of songs are dripping with irony and futile anger, yet there is a gentility and kindness to the proceedings. This isn’t a cheerful album but the sadness isn’t just self-satisfied negativity and misanthropy (á la Morrissey). It’s frightened and frantic but inherently fuelled by a love of people and a desire for connection. ‘Skype Calls’ is a simple ditty that deals calling a family member and the quiet comfort that it brings. It’s so heartfelt and filled with these well judged minute details that Carroll seems to almost exclusively deal in. In these moments, the tracks evoke that same affection and kindness of ‘This Must Be The Place’.
Adding to that feeling is music that falls into that twitchy groove that Talking Heads epitomised. There is a lot of 80s guitar rock like Gang of Four, The Smiths or Paul McCarthy on display. Things are really helped by a dynamite rhythm section. Drummer Josh Donnelly’s beats are tight, jittery and, when they need to be, seismic, while bassist Keith Broni provides these tiny fills that act as a wonderful garnish.
It’s weakest moments, such as ‘Alphra Lee’ and ‘Temp Jobs’, feel too stuck in 2007 to soar. These pieces seem as though they could have been on The Inbetweeners. Yet the boys are rocking some serious hits just beneath the surface. ‘Free Bird II’ and ‘Never Bored’ are incredible in their use of scale and catchiness. They are phenomenal earworms. Crucially, the band is willing to muck around with the form. ‘Skype Calls’ acoustic instrumentation neatly fits with the subdued lyrical content, while ‘Japanese Bonus Track’ is a straight-up country song until a great big lo-fi distorted riff cuts through the mix in the most cathartic way possible.
Shrug Life deserves to be heard. Nurture them because fuck knows we’re not going to get another group like them for a long time. Will Murphy