Success brings its own problems, and in the case of Braids, the success of debut album Native Speaker led to a whole load of them. Critical acclaim and a near constant two years on the road has led to the departure of band member Katie Lee, casting something of a shadow over the band’s follow-up record.
In fact, even that title – Flourish // Perish – seems to indicate that not even Braids themselves know what direction they’ll find themselves pulled in next. It’s certainly a very different sort of album from Native Speaker, with far more emphasis on glitchy beats and ambient electronica than on their previous record, but after a few listens you can’t help but be impressed by the evolution on display.
As the album title would suggest, Flourish // Perish is very much an album of two halves. The first five tracks (the ‘Flourish’ side) are dreamy and upbeat, while the last five (which represent ‘Perish’) are claustrophobic, uneasy and unsettling. What unites the two halves of the record though is a sense of almost euphoric sadness, which pulsates through the album, helped in no small part by the extraordinary vocals of Raphaelle Standell-Preston.
Freund has the same skeletal beauty of the best of The xx, with soft drums sounding like light rainfall, before slowly unfolding into a tense math-rock gem. The soft ambient hum of Girl recalls the best moments of Aphex Twin (one of the most namechecked influences for Braids, according to recent interviews) while Victoria is a gorgeous opener, with Standell-Preston’s voice sounding like Björk at her most other-worldly.
But it’s in the second half that Flourish // Perish really takes off. There’s an uneasy sense of menace and barely restrained anger hanging over the final five songs, with the clattering, scattered beats and staccato synth lines owing a huge debt to Radiohead in their Kid A era. Amends is the standout track, six minutes of pulsating keyboards and lyrics that are impossible to identify with anything other than Lee’s departure: “We have come so far, don’t throw this…”
It’s this ‘Perish’ side that more often recalls Native Speaker, with the longer tracks (often six or seven minutes long) taking their time to unfold. Listeners to the Braids side-project Blue Hawaii will also recognise the disjointed sense of melancholy that washes over many of the tracks, especially the beautiful ebb and flow of Juniper.
It finishes on an optimistic note though, with In Kind providing an almost cinematically beautiful end to the album. Like their closest comparison, their Canadian compatriot Grimes, Braids seem to have stepped up to another level with Flourish // Perish. While they may lack Claire Boucher’s way with a hook, they create the same kind of gorgeous soundscapes to wallow in. Flourish or Perish? The smart money is on the former.