Motto, the third album from Leeds indie-rockers Sky Larkin, is a creature shaped by almost two years of travel and touring through twenty eight countries. The album was mostly written while front-woman, Katie Harkin, was playing in Wild Beasts as part of their touring line-up. Polished off in their home county of Yorkshire and recorded in Seattle with long-term producer John Goodmanson, Motto could be the album that casts Sky Larkin as the indie darlings they fully deserve to be. Ever the support band despite two brilliant records prior to this, 2008’s The Golden Spike and 2010’s Kaleide respectively, Sky Larkin are back from hiatus with a bang and a record that declares them headliners and second fiddle to none.
Album opener and title track, Motto, was released on-line earlier this summer to widespread critical acclaim. There is a sense of defiance in Harkin’s distinctive voice stating “I saw what I saw / Saw what I saw/ Did what I did,” and it could be considered a statement of intent coming as it does at the start of the album. Motto rails against something and although it’s never entirely clear what it is, that’s part of the beauty of Sky Larkin. Harkin, in speaking about another track from the album, says that for her it’s “one of the funniest things about songs: they can be powerful without being self-evident.” While there are a myriad of themes explored throughout the album there is no one way to define them. Much in the same way that a poem can seem to be about one things while two different readers will each have separate interpretations of the poem. It’s a bit of a bastardisation of Wolfgang Iser’s reader-response theory; listener-response theory, if you will. While Sky Larkin may appear to be straight-forwardly enjoyable US indie-influenced guitar pop on the surface, their lyrics are anything but.
This musical influence that I just mentioned, of US indie on Sky Larkin, is evident in all aspects of their sound; elements of the Pixies, Sleater-Kinney and Pavement can be heard throughout the pop melodies and punchy riffs that constitute songs like Newsworthy which have a bounce and swagger to them. Yet while there’s a West Coast shine to the tune, Harkin’s lyrics can expand and contract in a matter of seconds. She’ll have short lines followed by a seemingly effortless lyrical coup d’état in verses like “Write to me / Keep it newsworthy / And streamline / So when we have time / We can pull everything and anything apart at the seams as we please,” without missing a beat. She goes on to plead “suckerpunch me/ with something newsworthy.” These turns of phrase are something Sky Larkin are known for and there are plenty to be found on Motto. I can’t help but thing that the next track, The Loyal Beat, is something of a tongue in cheek reference to this.
It’s on the second single to be taken from the album, Loom, that Harkins is at her most honest about the level of duplicity on the album. She isn’t explicit about the inspiration, but knowing that it would be the toughest song on the record for her she admits to “consciously attempt[ing] a fake-out” with herself. She wanted it to be their “Enola Gay, pop on the surface with a darkness that the casual listener might not pick up on.” It’s definitely that, all shiny pop melodies on top with a lyrical introspection that explores the notion of presence in the wake of a loss underneath. Yet it would be remiss of me to say that the whole album was just cheerful indie-rock with a darker lyrical edge. There are moments on the album where the music and lyrics marry in a union more representative of the whole. The dark lobotomy inspired Frozen Summer and restrained closing track Que Linda (Wake to Applause) are not necessarily breaking new ground for the band who are no strangers to taking the tempo down a notch or two, but they certainly stand out on an album that weaves indie-pop and post-punk melodies in a manner that will have you bouncing on the balls of your feet in public.
It would be amiss not to mention the artists behind the misleading music; Nile Marr was added as a second guitarist for the album and was a commanding presence on-stage during a recent tour with Marnie Stern. Sam Pryor is the new bassist and the rhythm section is completed by Nestor Matthews on drums. Together, with Katie Harkin on guitar and vocals, they are Sky Larkin, and with Motto they are coming for your headline slot.
Motto by Sky Larkin is out on September 17th via Wichita Records.