Ladyhawke – Anxiety

New Zealand’s Phillipa Brown burst onto the scene in 2008, backed by Modular, and caught many off guard with one of the label’s finest records, standing out even among its plethora of well-crafted pop/rock/electro hybrids. Of course, the 32 year old known in a performing capacity as Ladyhawke did not simply emerge from the ether, having done time in Wellington’s Two Lane Blacktop and Sydney’s Teenager as well as having appeared on Pnau’s Embrace from their self-titled 2007 record. But it was the quality of both the songwriting and execution of her first solo record, a collection of pop songs possessing both an infectious immediacy and subtle off-kilter quirks that catapulted her to the forefront of Australasian music. The now Melbourne-based artist took home two ARIA Awards in 2009 and eyes were now squared on the record’s follow-up.

Brown’s well-documented childhood was affected by Asperger syndrome and its resulting social implications, and punctuated by erysipeloid battles culminating in a near-death episode aged ten. The second Ladyhawke record, Anxiety, has finally dropped, four years after its predecessor, and thematically is largely informed by those experiences and their lingering effects, as well as her newly-shouldered weight of critical and commercial expectation, in ways both overt and less so. Opener Girl Like Me commences with a sleazy 70s glam rock section and its first line ‘I’m on a high, and I don’t even know why’ is a red herring of monumental proportions on a record largely rooted in vulnerability and insecurity – the record’s title, conversely, is not a misnomer. It does not take long for the track to take a darker turn, Brown playing second fiddle to another of her casanova lover’s conquests on the dancefloor and watching on as a jilted bystander.

A honky-tonk style piano groove and spacious, wailing lead guitar open Sunday Drive, the title of which conjures images of innocence and bliss. The lyrics however suggest desperation (‘Please don’t go, I need your love’) and a degree of dependence, though Ladyhawke isn’t trying to play a Lana Del Rey-esque ‘damsel in distress’ card. The purposeful groove of lead single Black, White & Blue is the most radio-ready moment on the record. Brown’s declaration of ‘Cause this is real life’ seems almost a jarring self-reminder that her problems reside in the real world and cannot simply be tossed aside or run away from. Likewise, Vaccine’s key moment is an endearing admission of concern with external perception – ‘What will people think of me?’ – while stylistically the track pairs an infectious bassline with a powerful beat and squealing synth/guitar duel in the chorus to create a magnificently catchy slice of new wave-informed pop.

The youthful abandon of the na-na-na chorus of Blue Eyes contrasts perfectly with its simple but effective tale of emotional baggage and relationships turned sour (‘Leave behind all the mess that you made’, ‘You see the pain in my blue eyes’). The perfectly formed pop hooks continue with standout track Vanity, a venomous swipe at modern self-obsession, homing in particularly the image-centric behaviour of 21st century youth, and The Quick & The Dead, which builds around a funk-influenced groove and features an effect-laden guitar and synth section in its outro reminiscent of a bunch of malfunctioning GameBoy consoles.

Title track and centrepiece Anxiety is the most direct and concise summation of the record’s sentiments, dealing with the subject matter in a straightforward, no-frills manner while retaining the immaculate pop structure that defines Ladyhawke’s music. The opening verse, ‘I take a pill to help me through the day/I stay inside until I feel OK/I’ve always been so cautious/I’m sick of feeling nauseous’, could scarcely be a more effective manifesto for the entire record, while the chorus is an expansion of that of Sunday Drive, distilling ‘Please don’t go/I need your love… take me on a Sunday drive’ down to ‘Take me on a ride/Show me how to hide the voice in my head’. The almost self-deprecating definition of her internal struggles as ‘This war of my own choosing’ marks a definite shift from ‘Hey, you’re playing with my delirium’, as if the protagonist’s predicament has turned from a throwaway source of borderline-ridicule to a deeper problem that refuses to subside.

Cellophane is a clever transposition of the traditional ‘life through rose coloured glasses’ aphorism, bundling it together with a ‘grass is always greener’ sentiment – ‘All those years we spent running away, we never knew that it was meant to be’ – around an anthemic, slow-building track that seems tailor made both lyrically and stylistically as an album closer. But just when things seem to have reached a logical conclusion, the fuzz pop machine starts back up again with Gone Gone Gone, the lines ‘You’re everything I could ever want/Save your advice for another girl’ expressing a sense of confusion once again. Perhaps this progression from confusion to clarity and back again is a cleverly planned one – indicative of the real life nature of anxiety where things never really reach a happily-ever-after point of rationality and resolution.

Anxiety does just what it says on the tin – each track here is a concise and upfront insight into Brown’s internal struggles. Likewise, the songs themselves never beat around the bush – everything here is well-crafted pop and the immediacy of both the music and lyrics rivals even that of the first record. The quality of the songs could be overshadowed amidst the concept album-esque thematic consistency of the lyrics, but the standing of Anxiety as one of the year’s true pop gems should not be underestimated.