If No Joy’s latest album is a storm, there’s a clear ethos in its eye. In writing and recording the music that would become the band’s first new full-length in five years, frontperson and principal songwriter Jasamine White-Gluz made a conscious effort to emphasize unconventionality, refusing to place limitations on her creative process.
“While in the studio, I wanted to keep the energy fun and throw any ideas at the wall,” White-Gluz said of recording Motherhood’s lead single “Birthmark” upon its release. Of second single “Nothing Will Hurt,” she recalled, “The demo of this song started as a slow Industrial burner built on samples of me screaming. Once brought into the studio, the song found new life; our mission in the studio was that no idea was too weird to try.” That fearless spirit of innovation uses No Joy’s familiar shoegaze/noise-rock sound as a springboard to a 42-minute whirlwind of dreamy, danceable, shape-shifting art-pop that feels both chaotic and carefully controlled; staggeringly complex and laser-focused; exhausting and exhilarating. And at the core of Motherhood is us—human bodies, human lives, and the timeless cycle through which one creates and carries the other.
White-Gluz’s open-arms approach to the creative process seems to have applied to her new album’s contributor lineup, as well. Though No Joy cofounder Laura Lloyd is no longer in the picture, Ariel Pink collaborator Jorge Elbrecht, who’s worked with the band since their 2013 sophomore LP Wait to Pleasure, returns as co-producer and multi-instrumentalist, while Jamie Thompson (Islands, Esmerine) and Tara McLeod (Kittie) contribute drums/drum machines and guitars/banjos (yes, banjos), respectively, and White-Gluz’s sister Alissa, the lead singer of Swedish death-metal supergroup Arch Enemy, contributes vocals on “Dream Rats.” You could even list White-Gluz herself among the collaborators: Recording her vocals at home, the singer experimented with harmonies and ad-libs, weaving a tangled web of melodies that’s key to the LP’s otherworldly power. The result is an album that is nearly impossible to pin down from one moment—let alone song—to the next, as if to defy anyone who would dare attempt to define Motherhood as just one thing.
A standout example of the album’s multiplicity is track four, “Four” (natch), which White-Gluz called “perhaps my favorite No Joy song ever written.” Hypnotic electronic guitar notes buzz and bend, slowly multiplying into a dull roar of feedback punctuated only by piano and handclaps, like 90 seconds of a high-tension wire being pulled tight to the point of snapping—and just when you think it’s about to break, all that pressure just evaporates, with a serene trip-hop beat bubbling up in its place. Birds chirp, an infant laughs and White-Gluz’s voice cuts through the chorus of vocal samples, urging, “Just keep calling me baby / all night long,” like she’s serenading a packed dance floor in a dream. Of course, it’s not long before that cathartic groove transforms, in turn, into a hard-nosed, post-punk instrumental, its caustic guitars swelling and receding like a pair of black lungs clinging to life. It’s a testament to Motherhood’s polish that “Four” sounds like one song and not three, a feat the album accomplishes again and again.
“Fish” begins with a layered bounce made of jaunty banjo, piano, chimes and breathy vocalizations; it’s uncanny, as in the early moments of a high, when you start to notice things are no longer normal, and it all goes sideways with the abrupt introduction of harsh guitars and punchy drums, then shifting back and forth between two disparate gears that improbably coalesce into one. The aforementioned “Dream Rats” lays a foundation of gentle dream-pop, only to unleash squalls of Alissa White-Gluz’s punishing screams, corrosive guitar shred and pounding double-time percussion that flood the song with nervous energy, the sisters’ vocals intertwining like the joy and suffering of motherhood itself as Jasamine sings with a wink, “Sorry to be all upset / Every little child’s a threat.” “Signal Lights” is an atmospheric piano ballad, then a post-punk rocker, then a woozy lo-fi melt that slides back and forth between audio channels, as if the signals inside of your skull are swaying passengers on a ship’s deck in stormy seas. “Spit fire into the sun,” sings White-Gluz over sludgy guitars and sparkling chimes, the song locking into a forever groove even as it fades out.
Even Motherhood’s more conventional tracks are overwhelmingly dynamic. The celestial crescendo of album opener “Birthmark” is a maelstrom of noise, thick with left-field instrumentation and overlapping voices, an immersive and ever-shifting experience. “Ageless” arranges synth riffs made of icicles with a hyperactive drum machine beat, chugging guitars and bass, and White-Gluz’s coolly ethereal musings (“I wonder if we will be sudden,” she sings), making for a propulsive dance-pop banger that builds up a Juggernaut-esque head of steam only to stop cold, downshifting into a stark piano outro.
“Happy Bleeding” is yet another dizzying combination of dreamy synth-pop, frenetic dance beats and swirling vocals. White-Gluz never lets up—closing cut “Kidder” is among Motherhood’s nerviest, combining a glitchy, stuttering dance beat with jagged shards of guitar distortion and some of the album’s most soul-baring lyrics: “Grateful for the family that loves me still / But I can’t seem to make my own / Nothing’s left to love / All of mine.”
Motherhood is defined by its refusal to compromise—presented with any choice, the album seems to answer, “Why not both?” The result is a creative tornado that sweeps up everything from bongos and trip-hop to slap bass and a broken clarinet, cohering somehow into a set of songs that gives the listener as much as it demands of them. It’s a testament to the power of creativity, intertwined with an emotionally complex contemplation on the act of human creation. That it’s No Joy’s most ambitious album yet, as Paste pointed out in highlighting Motherhood as one of August’s most exciting releases, is not up for debate; that it’s their best is not much more of a discussion.
Scott Russell is Paste’s former news editor, his wife’s current husband and his couch’s eternal occupant. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.
Watch No Joy’s 2018 Daytrotter session below: