Highly Suspect’s debut album was one of those debuts that have you absolutely convinced that nothing the band does next could possibly top it. Mister Asylum was, I thought, perfection.

It turns out that I need to have more faith in my favourite bands, because The Boy Who Died Wolf has somehow blown the lid off its predecessor, and is an album packed with all of those emotions that make up your favourite rock record. Frustration, sadness, heartbreak, grief, straight up anger… It’s the most accurate representation of a 20-something’s mind that I have ever heard.

Usually, I try and refrain from listening to the single tracks as they are released in the lead up to album release day, but as I had pre-ordered the record in iTunes, they mysteriously appeared on my iPhone at ungodly hours, and the temptation was just too much. I justify this by telling myself that I have now had more days to enjoy these killer tracks, and that my life will be better for it. Which is not entirely untrue.

The Boy Who Died Wolf amazed me from the offset.

I found a 30km drive, took it nice and slow, turned it up nice and loud, and immersed myself in what is, unquestionably, one of the greatest albums of the year given to us by the greatest rock band of our generation.

The opening track, My Name Is Human, has been out for a couple of months, and it sets this “badass” tone that emanates through the record. If anyone else were to replicate the sound, it would sound inauthentic, but these are a group of guys who define rock and roll. They’re overtly political, and not at all afraid to speak their minds, whether that be on social media or through their music.

With My Name Is Human, you’re instantly brought into this discourse of equality (“gotta remember than nobody is better than anyone else, here”). For a rock song, it’s wildly catchy but this doesn’t take away from its distinctive riffs that resonate throughout the 11 song collection. You get the impression that it’s going to be an edgy kind of record, but you have no idea just how edgy until Look Alive, Stay Alive. It’s anarchy as described by The Sex Pistols, and yet somehow, in a world where nothing is particularly scandalous anymore, it’s more shocking. The chorus consists of some serious thrashing, and it’s something that I haven’t heard in Highly Suspect before, yet it still contains that matter of factness that defines them.

You think you’re better than everyone? / Well, you’re f-ing not.

The track ends suddenly, and moves into what is perhaps its polar opposite – Little One. This is the first notion of loss, heartache, and missing out on something that might have been great, though it certainly isn’t the last. In direct contrast to Look Alive, Stay Alive, Little One is affectionate and unguarded – a tell-all confession of the hurt that comes with loss.

Bands have a habit of putting their most hard hitting songs in pairs, as though they need you in the zone (“the zone” being an emotional wreck), before throwing 6 tons of salt in the wound. This is an accurate description of what happened to me with For Billy. The vibe is certainly more upbeat, but the topic of conversation remains dark. It addresses the death of a friend, and while in part, it feels like a celebration of a life lived to its fullest, it’s still swimming with grief.

“And I promise I’ll see you on the other side / We’ll get high and go out for another ride / I promise I’ll see you on the other side / Still feels like yesterday/ I’ll love you always.”

Track 5, Serotonia, has been a stand out for me since hearing it live way back in March at the band’s Auckland City Limits performance at Western Springs. The lyric, “It’s just I’m not that good of a person, but I might be enough for you / and I’ve got enough love for two”, resonated so intensely with me, that it was as though I had known the song my entire life. I think at the time, I took it quite literally: that Johnny [Stevens] was referring to a person that he loved, when in reality, he’s referring to two different coastlines – East and West – and the transition from New York to Los Angeles. There are a number of Hollywood references, including Audrey Hepburn, and in a roundabout way, it is still romantic, albeit in a different way to what I first believed. This track, in particular showcases how Johnny’s vocal range, as he takes it from soft and low to belting it out in just seconds. He’s simply spectacular.

Midway through the record, we’re hit with the reality check that is Postres (or Dessert if we want to be English about it). It fits seamlessly with the rest of the record, although by this point I’m starting to wonder how it is that the album remains so sonically cohesive with so much variation from one track to the next. This song reminds us of the basic structure of life. That is: you’re born, you live, and then you die, and what you do in the middle isn’t really important. Regardless of lyrical content, it still sounds like a laid back, care free, party song that makes you want to seize every moment. And maybe get, like, really drunk.

Despite the “bad boy” image that these three Brooklyn guys have, and in contrast to much of the rest of the album, Send Me An Angel shows a softer side, in which lead singer Johnny shows vulnerability in his own romantic difficulties and desires. It’s a much more soothing sound to what we’ve been treated to so far, emphasising fragility, and taking us on a journey from hopelessness to hope within less than four and a half minutes.

“Empty dreams can only disappoint / In a room behind your smile / Don’t give up, don’t give up / You can be lucky in love.”

Up to this point, it has been a whirlwind of emotional confusion, and it only continues as we’re met with anger and hatred in Viper Strike. This is the track that the band leaked themselves in wake of the USA election result (which you can get the background for here), and while it’s so far from the type of song that I would usually enjoy, it’s one of my top three tracks on The Boy Who Died Wolf. I have used the word “raw” a lot in the past to describe songs, usually in regards to sound rather than lyrics, but it’s never been more accurate than it is now, in relation to Viper Strike. Lyrically, it’s hard hitting: “Guns don’t kill people / White people kill black people / With guns”, but it’s a true representation of the band, which is what makes it so important. The track is more spoken than sung, particularly in the verses, almost as though as long as the words are put out into the world, the band isn’t particularly fussed as to how they get there. It’s this point in the record that authenticity reaches its peak.

F.W.Y.T feels like an extended intro into a hip-hop song, which, given the grunge/punk/rock genre that the band mainly falls into, is entirely unexpected. Had it been earlier on in the track listing, it could have easily worked as an intermission, yet due to its placement as the third to last track, something tells me it’s more important than that. The lyrics are simple, short and repetitive: “Dystopia / I have given up on you / F-ck what you think / I knew, I knew”. Highly Suspect lyrics are often blatant and leave little to be interpreted, but I feel with F.W.Y.T, there is something more implicit that I have yet to figure out. In the mean time, I’ll throw on a snapback and enjoy the jam.

The penultimate track, Chicago, is one that made me wish my eyeballs had windscreen wipers, because it was definitely not road safe to be crying as much as I was in peak traffic on Highway 16 as this song hit me right in the gut. If you’ve ever had, and subsequently lost, a long distance relationship you know the pain of realising that, for reasons that are unique to you and your partner, it’s not going to work. Being forced to end something for circumstantial reasons is potentially one of the most heartbreaking things someone can go through – to know the love is still there on both sides, but the means to create a stable life together are not. This song sucks. It sucks because it’s stripped back to Johnny playing the piano, singing about something that hits way too close to home. It sucks because it’s beautiful and it’s all I want to listen to right now, but I just. Cannot. Stop. Crying.

“Well baby I met you in downtown ChicagoBut I, had to drive away the next day / So I flew your pretty ass to / New York City / Then I, I left you in L.A.”

Finality is sometimes welcome. Sometimes it’s a relief that something is over. But as I heard the first notes of Wolf, I was hit with the realisation that this would be the last time that I would be able to listen to a new Highly Suspect song with fresh ears for the foreseeable future. And I hated it. I was already feeling heavy hearted after the sharp truth of Chicago, but the last track brought on a whole new wave of sadness, because all this track represents is finality. Lyrically, it seems to lead on from its predecessor, with Chicago handling the understanding that the relationship can’t work, and Wolf dealing with the break-up itself. It hurts.

“I’m moving on, yeah I gotta go / Yeah, ’cause baby I was born to rock, and now I’ve gotta roll.”

Sonically, it’s probably got the most classic ‘rock n roll’ vibe to it, particularly in the chorus. It’s the longest track on the album, and the last two and a half minutes is made up of one hell of a guitar solo that is going to be off the chain at their live shows. It’s a true testament to the band’s musical ability, and a truly solid choice for a closing track that successfully left me sobbing into my steering wheel as I arrived at my destination.

My Name Is Human
Look Alive, Stay Alive
Little One
For Billy
Send Me An Angel
Viper Strike

Printable up to 18"x12" Credits: Cave by SwellMap: https://www.flickr.com/photos/94207108@N02/ Space by NASA

The Boy Who Died Wolf – Highly Suspect (2016) Warner Music NZ

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