Header photo by Tom Oxley
Though they’ve been skirting the music scene for a few years now, Reading alt-pop quartet Sundara Karma are beginning 2017 with a grand formal entrance. The release of their debut LP ‘Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect’ follows a whirlwind 2016, which included a main stage slot at Reading and Leeds, a co-headline slot on the first ever BBC Music Presents US tour, and radio accolades on both sides of the pond from BBC Radio 1, Beats 1 and Sirius XM Alt Nation.
The album’s title is striking in its self-awareness, especially when you realise that the members of Sundara Karma (frontman Oscar Pollock, guitarist Ally Baty, bassist Dom Cordell and drummer Haydn Evans), all at or near the ripe age of 20 years, are still in the very midst of what most of us would call youth. Thematically, the songs on the LP revolve around the egocentric angst of coming of age. Musically, the slick instrumentation, propulsive rhythms and catchy choruses channel that very real in-the-moment angst into a set of instantly anthemic radio hits, delivered in Pollock’s endearingly petulant baritone. (It should be noted that, as a frontman, Pollock bears an immediate stylistic and vocal resemblance to The 1975 lead singer Matt Healy, and Pollock’s androgynous stage name “Lulu” suggests that the impression isn’t entirely accidental.)
Most of the songs on ‘Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect’ were released on previous EPs, including a pair from 2015 titled ‘EP I’ and ‘EP II’. But a few of the tracks are new, and final track ‘Loveblood’, was reworked specifically for U.S. release. Though they were clearly written over a period of several years, the tracks mesh with remarkable cohesion in the context of the album’s overarching thematic concept. Opening track ‘A Young Understanding’ sets the mood straightaway with sharp, edgy guitars and a potent lyrical refrain, “reach for a side, reach for an understanding”.
‘Olympia’ explores the well-worn idea of the feminine mystique from a rather aloof third person distance, as Lulu describes his elusive muse: “modern Venus, tender and frail . . . she’s the best in all of Paris at aching and breaking hearts”. Later in the album sequence, ‘Vivienne’ is the flip side of the coin, a passionate romance requited: “wild eyes, skinny jeans / disengaged at just 19 / you and I stuck in the in-between”. Existential youth anthem ‘She Said’ might be considered the very core of the album’s character. Lyrically, its conflict plays out in the final verse, as Lulu sings of a boy “acting like he doesn’t care / but he’s really the most self-aware . . . ain’t it funny how we’re never certain ‘bout the way we are / another youth wasted, an eternity tainted”.
The folky guitar intro and bouncy handclaps of ‘Happy Family’ disguise an expansive, Springsteen-esque narrative about reaching a dead end in life and making hard choices: “been searching for a long time in this town / looking for a gold mine so we can get out / to finer days, we’ll waste away…” Simpler instrumentation and a folk rock rhythm are also the foundation for ‘Lose the Feeling’, where ethereally distant synths are added to set the sonic tone for a “lucid dream” experience.
The album becomes notably heavier toward the end, with the dark and ominous ’Be Nobody’ (“all the kids are ravers / ‘cos the church is now the club”) and the angular, shadowy ‘Deep Relief’, which contains the eponymous lyric “good things they come and go / and if they don’t we’re wired to forget / we bear a heavy load / ‘cos youth is only ever fun in retrospect”. Final track ‘Loveblood’ (U.S. Version) is a brooding, vampiric melodrama that takes a notable lyrical misstep in refering to the “taste of the thunder from her thighs”, but ends with a more thematically appropriate line “one last kiss, away she goes / obsessed with loveblood and no one knows”.
Fans of recent upstart bands like The 1975 and Catfish and the Bottlemen might find themselves similarly obsessed with Sundara Karma after a listen to ‘Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect’. It reads a bit like a John Hughes film from the 1980s and borrows sonic gestures from the dark synth pop of the same era, but its musical approach feels fresh and novel from a distance of 30 years, which, once again, is longer than anyone in the band has been alive. Despite their relative youth, the album’s one-two punch of youthful emotion and sonic intensity is sure to propel Sundara Karma forward as one of the biggest new acts of 2017.
Sundara Karma’s debut album ‘Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect’ is out now on Chess Club / RCA Victor. It’s also available for streaming in America via Bee & El / Sony RAL.