Dance music doesn’t often translate easily to album formats or home listening. The best dance music defines its success by its function: quite simply, its aim is to sound like the best part of any night. In the club, it’s designed to be for the moment – hands-in-the-air, thrillingly unpredictable yet intrinsically familiar. Outside of the club is different – it becomes almost a souvenir of moments, a memory of parties and dancefloors and all the things that occur in them. Real Lies, a North London trio whose music owes as much to early 90’s indie as club culture, deal in souvenirs of nightlife and explore what it means to go out pleasure-seeking in the era of lad culture, fragmented society and broken Britain.
Real Life is an album that feels crossover ready, if not by intent than at least by design. The dance music being drawn on isn’t the cutting-edge sounds of post-dubstep bass music or international urban scenes that excite bloggers and Discogs shoppers. It’s a simple take on familiar tropes, including piano-house, electro bleeps, and diva samples – not basic, but easy to imagine house and techno obsessives dismissing as rudimentary. A casual listener would find it retro, a snob might define it as dated, but it’s essentially timeless – all the elements of chart-ready dance-pop in the last twenty years are accounted for, right down to the reggae swing of ‘DAB Housing’ and chunky chords of ‘Seven Sisters’. It’s definitely not for purists though: the vocals are somewhere between Shaun Ryder’s untrained bark and the barely-rapped monologues of The Streets. It’s not quite the Pet Shop Boys as much as East 17’s cover of ‘West End Girls’ – cheeky and raw without the archness. Or, to put it another way: it picks up exactly where The Tough Alliance left off on cult album A New Chance, with a mix of shameless pop, Madchester energy and Balearic spirit.
If this all sounds rather maximalist; well, that’s the point. Real Life’s vignettes of parties and comedowns feel animated and lived-in. Opener ‘Blackmarket Blues’ lists a squirm-inducing catalogue of weekend thoughts that echoes Saint Etienne’s ‘Girl VII’ in its elevation of the mundane to seeming glamorous, over dubbed-out electronics. ‘One Club Town’ rides a baggy reggae-disco loop with a sampled devoted diva, ‘I’ll be there whenever you need me’, sung not as a love song between two people but a testament to the power of gratification and indulgence that happens on a substance-filled Saturday night.
Of course, it’s a false escape: there’s no dancefloor utopia where dreams last forever and love never dies. Real Lies are experienced and aware enough to pull the curtain on the other side of it. Real Life is as much a statement of defeat as it is a celebration – nightlife can be wonderful, but its transient nature means its thrills can only ever be temporary. ‘North Circular’ dwells on the minutiae of times past over a walk through the city, its gauzy synths and morose piano chords evoking a feeling of nostalgia married to a current sense of regret, while ‘Naked Ambition’ feels self-confrontational with its realisation “it’s time I did some growing of my own.” What goes up must come down; Real Life has many comedown moments.
The influence of The KLF lingers over this album – not just in the way they pillage club music for production inspiration, but in their spirit. The KLF were about liberation from everyday life, trying to capture the lack of self-awareness and realised emotion from musical experience, and make it last forever: 3AM Eternal indeed. Real Life is about searching for a similar freedom, but it makes the most of the trappings of everyday life rather than eschewing them.
But it’s not just pseudo-profound substance-driven garbling. With the laddish swagger of The Happy Mondays, the observational nuance of The Streets, the knowing steeliness of Pet Shop Boys and the self-contained thrill of sonic adventure of Saint Etienne, Real Life is a three-dimensional look at modern club-life and identity through a prism of everyday experience. It’s not always a positive experience, but it’s real, and no amount of kitsch production or pastiche sounds can make it seem artificial. Real Life sounds like a hangover. Deliberately so, and encompassing all aspects of the aftermath of partying – the regret of poor decisions and the mourning of passing moments of joy, as much as the pleasures of hedonism and the nostalgia of new faces, new places and new adventures.