MY LIFE STORY – Loving You Is Killing Me

My Life Story’s first new studio album in nineteen years, 2019’s ‘World Citizen’, was a great comeback. Although the orchestral elements may not have seemed as prominent as those that drove the band’s earlier work, the album’s best material still demonstrated how Jake Shillingford’s distinctive indie pop still possessed a pleasingly grand heart. With orchestral arrangements recorded remotely in Hungary whilst the “rock band” contingent of MLS worked in the UK, the results could’ve sounded disjointed, but its to the band and producer’s credit that everything came together flawlessly. On reflection, a few of the more obvious vocal filters made some of the material feel a little shiny, but, as a complete work, it held up well over repeated listens following its release, proving that the fans and critics’ early enthusiasm for the album was certainly not without merit. The live shows surrounding the record continued the My Life Story tradition of giving audiences an indelible experience – even without a full orchestra in tow – and then, having gained even more traction, any future plans were cut short by the 2020 global pandemic.

A long overdue return to the spotlight, their fifth album – 2024’s ‘Loving You Is Killing Me’ – shares a sometimes very different My Life Story, but Shillingford’s desire to never be stuck in a musical rut ensures the album brings fans some new musical treats. The opening track ‘Running Out of Time’ is strikingly different. Gone is Shillingford’s croon which drove early classics like ‘12 Reasons Why’ and ‘Girl A, Girl B, Boy C’; in its place, a much lighter, carefree tone. This has been joined by a suitably upbeat arrangement where Aimee Smith’s layered synth work dominates everything. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With the keys joined by various chopping guitar sounds, the band embraces a very late 80s/early 90s sound that – above all else – aims to make the listener feel good. Just as much as the spritely music, the production values here are very sharp, and Depeche Mode/Natalie Imbruglia producer Ben Hillier has clearly allowed MLS’s pop edges to shine through more than ever. The brighter sound gives Shillingford’s lyrics a genuinely optimistic send off, despite the fact that the lyric concerning having “a finite amount of heartbeats” could have a negative twist. This is the perfect introduction to the album; it’s an arrangement that’s unafraid to take a new path, and yet has such an infectious quality. Between the mechanised beats and stuttering hook, it’s actually one of those tracks that embeds itself in the memory, becoming a potential alt-pop classic somewhere after the second play.

All big beats and shiny chords, the even better ‘I’m A God’ places one of Jake’s more recognisable vocals against more synth based sounds, but if anything sticks here it isn’t so much the Killers meets Human League arrangement, it’s the lyrical swipe against those with a power complex. A certain social media wrecking ego is in the firing line, as is a TV reality star who became a world power. There’s more to these feelings of grandeur than genuine fame, however, and this becomes clear when Shillingford suggests that even the man at the chippy considers himself a “TikTok God”, tapping into the idea that the internet has given a whole variety of people their fifteen minutes of fame (…after all, what exactly did Joe Sugg do? …and who was he anyway?) Several listens later, the swirling repetitive rhythms begin to sound like a joyous throwback to the late 80s, and even with an occasional indie rock guitar chiming in, this MLS take on a synth pop sound is utterly compelling.

Also working a very bright keyboard sound in places, the punchy ‘Identity Crisis’ works a fat bass tone against a sassy vocal, which brings an unexpected post-punk mood weaving its way into some great pop. Long time fans will latch onto the energy here, even before a broader chorus – stoking up the vocals and guitars – hints at more of a Britpop influence. Although this doesn’t align with the “classic” MLS sound, overall, the track grows into another perfect pop-rocker, where the layered harmonies are as grand as the taut rhythms. It’s a definite highlight, whilst the more sedate ‘Bubblewrap’ adds some of the darker moods cutting through the centre of ‘Mornington Crescent’ to another synth heavy tune. The atmospheric verse marries a dour vocal with mechanised beats, instantly setting up something very cool, but its the chorus where the magic happens, and Smith’s keys burst into a glorious synthwave riff, underneath which, a pulsing rhythm drives some fine pop. There are moments where a very big sounding melody is in danger of swamping everything, but listen more closely and you’ll discover a lyric that’s rather sinister, with Shillingford taking the role of a narrator whose controlling behaviours are in contrast with the pop melodies that gradually play out. My Life Story’s brand of indie-pop has often been called sophisticated, but here, the juxtaposition of cold but alluring sounds and deeply unsettling lyrics aim for so much more than just a quick melodic hit.

The rest of the album takes a little more time to settle in, but isn’t short of great songs. In a massive change of mood, the almost punky ‘Naked’ is unafraid to crank up the guitars, and the spiky style employed by Nick Evans sounds as if it were inspired by MLS performing the Adam & The Ants b-side ‘Fall In’ at gigs between 2017-19. This really works the guitar and rhythm section into a frenzy and, again, has almost nothing in common with the MLS of old. But even here – on the most chaotic of tunes – there’s time for a brief interlude where a wavering pop-ish feel and cleaner vocal suggest something far less disposable. Those looking for something much closer to the older My Life Story, the moody ‘The Urban Mountaineer’ takes a much slower, more spacious approach, allowing Shillingford to stretch out vocally, and its moments of acoustic guitar meshing with string-like synths creates a definite throwback. That’s not to say it sounds uninspired; there are a couple of nods to very grand 70s pop and a superb bassline adding to the slightly woozy qualities, and eventually, a slight shift into something a little more jangly lends an upbeat feel. In terms of lasting hooks, it’s certainly more of a slow-burner, but for the less adventurous listener, it’ll offer a welcome comfort blanket.

A genuine curve-ball, the slow, pulsing ‘Tits & Attitude’ places a baritone vocal against a wall of steady rhythms and overdriven guitar, eventually blooming into a melody that’s almost a MLS take on goth-pop. It can feel strange hearing Jake find a new vocal that almost falls somewhere between one of Iggy Pop’s croons and Lou Reed’s attempts at a melody, but the music’s great. Particularly impressive, the guitars fill the instrumental break with arcs of sound that appear much more arty than this song probably needed, and the track’s coda makes great use of layers of distortion, but with the steady groove still finding space for a couple of acoustic strums and a warm bass, there’s always a deliberate melodic contrast to make everything more accessible. Although ‘B-Side Girl’ holds onto a similar tempo and, in some ways, a similar rhythm guitar sound, in keeping with the rest of the LP, the end results are quite different. Although there’s little about the track that immediately stands out, older indie fans might hear a vague similarity to early Gene due to a broad vocal and heavily layered sound. This is the closest ‘Loving You…’ gets to offering any filler, but since this shares a superb guitar tone and a classic sounding indie vibe that almost feels nostalgic, even from the first listen, it’s actually still rather appealing.

As different from ‘World Citizen’ as that was from earlier My Life Story work, ‘Loving You Is Killing Me’ presents the sound of a band unafraid to try new things. At the centre of the record, of course, fans will find a very familiar voice, and Shillingford’s distinctive and honest songwriting style still pokes its head above the pop-rock parapet with a disarming confidence. With at least six or seven tracks immediately worthy of gracing a well curated “adult pop” playlist, this album certainly isn’t short on great material. ‘Loving You…’ might not always sound much like the band you loved back in the 90s, but this incarnation of MLS is capable of delivering some really catchy hooks, and – although very different – the strong pop heart that beats here creates an album that’s as strong as anything else in the My Life Story catalogue. A highly recommended listen.

Buy the album and other My Life Story merch from their webstore.

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February 2024