On Could It Be Different?, the third album from Glaswegian four-piece The Spook School, the group explores (trans)gender, sexuality, mental illness, and queer issues via jangly, C86-inspired indie pop songs. Make that ultra-catchy indie pop songs. There are themes of survival on “Still Alive” (“fuck you, I’m still alive!”), a song that illustrates how the band manages to stay on the right side of twee by injecting their songs with a crunchy, punky edge. Other songs, like “Alright (Sometimes)” feel like less ramshackle spiritual successors to the barely remembered late 1990s “urban folksters” Hefner.
The group’s male + female vocal interplay (a dynamic that is on full display in the infectious “I Only Dance When I Want To”) is reminiscent of Belle & Sebastian, even while the band’s music often sounds like an alluring amalgam of early Arctic Monkeys and the Wombats before they got all glossed up.
Penultimate song “Body” is musically frenetic and lyrically laced with hesitance and self-doubt, but pushes past dysphoria and gives way to a trans-positive message. When Nye Todd sings “Do you like the way you look naked?/I don’t know if any of us do/And I still hate my body/But I’m learning to love what it can do,” he does it with vulnerability and bravery.
The album’s quiet interludes are some of its most striking. The squealing feedback in the intro to “Bad Year” gives way to a beautiful, almost doo-wop-influenced ballad about not letting exhaustion and defeat calcify into anger, and instead re-investing in optimism and working towards change. It’s also a song about how sometimes even the supporters need support. On “High School,” Todd ponders how choices we make shape the people we are, and how experiences, even difficult ones, can lead us to people and places that we can’t imagine our lives without. The way the song’s marching jangle slowly fades into hazy synthesizers is a well-executed musical approximation of getting lost in thought. It’s not regretful; it’s thoughtful.
The Spook School are a proud heir to a long tradition of Scottish indie excellence. Anglophiles take note! And take these tunes to your local indie disco. Soaring backing vocals, guitars that twinkle and slash, and introspective lyrics make “Best of Intentions” and “Keep in Touch” bristle with an unbeatable mix of excitement and ennui and feel both plugged in to a rich past and vanguards of the future. What makes the band so remarkable is its empathy, honesty and optimism. On Could It Be Different?, the band looks the world in the eye and says “nobody but me can decide who I am—you too have that right.” This music is defiant, not in anger, but in its refusal to be defined by anything besides itself. Theirs is a sincere belief in everyone’s right to exist as their true selves, and that even in the face of society’s fear and misunderstanding, things can get better. And, that you can always dance, but that in true introvert fashion, “I Only Dance When I Want To.” | Mike Rengel