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Playing to a packed out Workman’s Club in December last year, James McGovern, The Murder Capital’s commanding frontman preempts ‘On Twisted Ground’ with a few simple words of advice — “keep your friends close”. The song, an ode to a close friend who had recently taken his own life, ended on an emotional note. McGovern locked bassist Gabriel Paschal Blake — visibly close to tears — in a warm embrace and kissed him on the forehead. Honesty, unity and vulnerability are all clearly important to The Murder Capital, and it shows on When I Have Fears.
Named for the Keats poem, it comes as no surprise that lyrically, When I Have Fears also explores death. Not only on the aforementioned sparse, heart-wrenchingy gorgeous track but also on the life-affirming ‘Don’t Cling to Life’. Another track inspired by grief, this time the passing of a band member’s mother. Propelled by motorik drumming and blistering guitars, it’s a straightforward indie-disco floor-filler, with McGovern at his most earnest. His melodic, urgent delivery is anthemic:
“Failing this, let’s dance and cry so we remember why we die. Don’t cling to life, there’s nothing on the other side.”
Meanwhile, ‘Green and Blue’ is inspired by photographer Francesca Woodman, who took her own life aged just 22. It’s a much more sombre, moody affair, but no less beautiful. Here, interlocking, impressionistic guitar work, a driving bassline and powerful, precise drumming bolster McGovern’s booming baritone. The band’s self-confessed interest in art and architecture, particularly brutalism, comes to the fore. The cyclical, rhythmic patterns and dizzying, contrapuntal guitar work shouldn’t be so beautiful, but they are.
The Murder Capital have worked hard to refine their sound, no doubt aided by relentless touring and the presence of a veteran producer in Flood. Songs have been tried, tested, reworked and thrown out. ‘On Twisted Ground’ is whittled down to a minimalist arrangement, and the bolshy ‘More Is Less’ appears with revised lyrics. Also, the discordant intro that gig attendees have grown accustomed to is absent from the studio recording of this track. These alterations work wonders, strengthening the raw emotion of both songs.
In particular, the meticulous attention given to the flow of When I Have Fears is noteworthy. The album’s presentation plays to both logic and emotion. The momentum gained in the austere ‘For Everything’ carries on through ‘More Is Less’ before a subtle mood shift on ‘Green and Blue’. This also allows the band to showcase their versatility. ‘Slowdance I’ is The Murder Capital at their most romantic, maintaining a heady atmosphere throughout. A stunning tremolo-picked guitar melody builds to a rich crescendo before peeling away and closing out with a melancholic cello mimicking the preceding guitar line. The Leonard Cohen-esque, piano-led ‘How the Streets Adore Me Now’ juxtaposes pain and beauty, accented by McGovern’s murmured vocal.
Despite its sombre themes and dark undertones, When I Have Fears is a vital record. Any concerns that The Murder Capital’s much lauded live sound could not be replicated on record are well and truly alleviated. An exercise in theme, tone and contrast, the Dublin quintet offer a unique take on the post-punk revival sound — favouring dynamics and subtlety as much as noise and volume.