I remember driving to work when I first got the chance to listen to Gang of Youths’ second album, Go Farther In Lightness. As I weaved through Western Sydney, there was a noticeable difference between GFIL and its predecessor, The Positions. Even from its first listen, GFIL felt like it was built for bigger things, bigger stages. It had an innate ability to put the listener in a position to envisage stadiums being filled; the crowd heaving to every word that dripped from Dave Le’aupepe’s mouth. And yet, for me, it simultaneously felt like it had a place in an intimate venue, where you could genuinely feel the energy of the room.
As the band toured GFIL to massive rooms across the country, I remember tweeting the band asking/ suggesting/ hoping they’d tour the album with an orchestra. It felt like there was an opportunity for something special to occur. And while this orchestra tour didn’t quite come to fruition, luckily for all of us, MTV Unplugged decided to finally set up shop in Australia. After decades of creating stripped back live sets for the American audience, MTV Unplugged tapped Gang of Youths to be the debut artist in Australia, and as a result have released the aptly titled, MTV Unplugged Live In Melbourne.
Going purely off the sets that had been delivered in the past from the format, Gang of Youths have delivered a wholesome, if slightly tame, recording for the Unplugged MTV format. The recording has been delivered in two distinct parts: the opening five tracks are your real party tunes; the downright fun tracks from GFIL. These are the songs that are instantly going to get a live crowd on their feet. As for the closing five tracks, they’re the intimate, eat-away-at-your-heart type of tracks. It is this distinct differentiation in the release that makes the listening a little bit of a let down. By no means is their Unplugged performance disappointing; it just doesn’t live up to the highs that I know the band are capable of in not only a studio setting, but also a full live show experience.
Opening the recording is “Let Me Down Easy”, led solely by Le’aupepe and orchestra. It sounds great, but lacks all that magic the song has seemingly built since its release a year ago. A standout track from GFIL, I’d hoped “Fear and Trembling” would still hit the same lofty peaks of the original version. Again, it feels as though that leaving the band out of this version may have been an error. As an exclusively acoustic version, this live version felt hollow. You can tell that Dave is giving his all in the track, but compared to a full band performance, it doesn’t go near to matching it.
Despite the opening two tracks seemingly missing the mark, the next three tracks absolutely crush it. My personal favourite “Keep Me In The Open”, backed by trumpet in the opening verses and chorus, is subtle and intricate, and has a real The National vibe to it (think a cross between “Fake Empire” and “Wasp Nest”).
The magic built throughout ‘The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows” is the exact trick I’d been looking for when I thought playing with an orchestra would be a great idea. The underdog of GFIL, but probably most fulfilling, “The Heart Is A Muscle” follows on the path of “Deepest Sighs” and proves to the best two-track run of the release. The strings and horns don’t overplay themselves, whilst Gang of Youths produce the type of performance you’d come to expect.
As Unplugged moves into its second distinct part, the waterworks get turned on and all the emotions you’ve been holding onto for the past ten years seemingly ease its way out of your tear ducts. The heartache and back-story of “Persevere” is delivered in a way that makes you wish that the situation that inspired the track never be bestowed upon anyone. It is here that the pureness in a song solely of vocals and piano truly become a beacon of the album.
The simple and reflective “Go Farther In lightness” goes about helping Unplugged seemingly tie its loose ends together, before closing on the underplayed and remarkable “Still Unbeaten Life”. Taken originally from their Let Me Be Clear EP, “Still Unbeaten Life” swirls and shines, just as it did in its original form. This is the most complete and utterly beautiful moment of the Unplugged set, and frankly, deserves to be played more often in a live setting.
Limiting the set to almost entirely newer material hasn’t done any justice to the potential that earlier tracks could have had in an orchestral setting (I’d have loved to see “Strange Diseases”, “Magnolia”, “Knuckles White Dry” or “Vital Signs” get a run). As a first up MTV Unplugged show in Australia, Gang of Youths were dealt a tough deal. They had nothing to gauge how best to present their set. As a result, some of the tracks feel a little empty and lacking the emotional depth they have in other formats. With that in mind, the stripped back nature of Unplugged has afforded other tracks to grow in nature. As someone who has followed the band since their earliest days, I know what they can produce in a live setting. This Unplugged recording just may not be the best indicator of what the band truly have to showcase.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
MTV Unplugged Live In Melbourne is out now.
Gang of Youths tour on a nationally sold out tour throughout October and November that kicks off this weekend. Check out the dates and more details at their Facebook Page.
Photo by Waytao Shing.