It’s been a speedy rise to prominence for Edinburgh four-piece The Spook School, who formed in 2012 and burst out of the gates with their debut, Dress Up, in 2013. A year later, their music was being used in BBC3 sketch show Badults. They have brought up gender and identity in their music, and they continue to explore these themes on the follow-up, Try To Be Hopeful. In no way a transformation of their sound, if anything the new album is louder, angrier and much more direct.
That’s the summary of it, at least; but much has gone on behind the scenes since the first album. Vocalist and guitarist Nye Todd, who identifies as transgender, started testosterone therapy whilst making the record. The side-effect of this was that Todd’s singing voice changed throughout the creative process. “It was a bit nerve-racking and frustrating to not be able to sing things that I’d been able to sing easily before,” says Todd, “but we worked with it and ended up with stuff that sounds pretty great.” The aforementioned ‘stuff’ is tremendously thrilling – 11 songs that are charming, infectious and loaded with substance.
On the surface, it’s a breathtaking avalanche of rowdy, hooky indie pop. Opener Burn Masculinity sets out the mission statement within seconds, whilst Books And Hooks And Movements is so hectic and frenetic that it’s enough to leave you dizzy. Richard And Judy goes at a blistering pace, to the point where there’s always a sense that it could fall in on itself. Even when they are all loved up, like on Only Lovers, there is enthusiasm and joy in abundance.
Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find an emotional core that is absent from the landfill of indie bands that have come and gone in recent memory. There’s no attempt to get on a pedestal and preach at all; in fact, a lot of Try To Be Hopeful could be seen as an album about realising who you really are and making no apologies for it. It makes choruses like “I am bigger than a hexadecimal,” from Binary, a song that questions the concept of gender, defiant and rousing.
It’s the album’s most poignant and heartfelt track, which makes it a suitable closer. A song that refuses to get bogged down in weariness and defeat, it’s a rallying cry for people to remain optimistic for the future and that their problems will “sail away”. Down to the euphoric guitar solo towards the end, it’s a magnificent way to finish.
Try To Be Hopeful traverses many different moods and emotions in the space of thirty-four minutes – a pulsating manifesto with no opportunities for a breather. In a year that has been a turning point for transgender visibility in popular culture, this is a confident, vital and highly uplifting record.