Beautiful and harrowing, angry and demanding, blistering yet hopeful, Svalbard’s When I Die Will I Get Better? is a triumph of creativity and authenticity. If you draw a Venn diagram of post-hardcore, shoegaze, and feminist treatise, this album would land smack dab in the center. It isn’t quite any of those things, but it is a brilliant album worth listening to this very instant.
At the heart of this album lies the dichotomy and dissonance of being both darker and prettier than It’s Hard to Have Hope, their previous album. There’s more atmospheric shoegaze, which is more refined. It’s less punk. Serena Cherry’s ethereal clean vocals are clearly at odds with the content in a way which is striking and affecting. The content is serious and personal, but the music is uplifting and hopeful. It evokes Astronoid and what Brett Boland calls “happy metal,” yet like Astronoid, the lyrical content isn’t aligned with the emotion conveyed by the music. But if you bounced off Astronoid because it “wasn’t metal enough”, Serena’s harsh vocals in Svalbard will give you what you’ve been looking for.
The core of that vocal contradiction exists in the lyrics, also by Serena Cherry, which I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out for being freshly direct. There’s a school of thought that lyrics need to be poetic, to use wordplay, metaphor, and imagery. But sometimes I just want my angry music to say what the musician is thinking. Parsing meaning out of poetry in this day and age is fraught when it can be hard to separate the alt-right from the rest, and having a clear and loud agenda makes it easy. There’s a time and place for flowery words, and I don’t think 2020, with the world falling apart around us, is it.
Of course, the lyrics focus on Serena’s own experiences and background, so it’s hard to talk about this album without mentioning that not long ago it was revealed that the owner of Holy Roar Records (the band’s original label for this album) allegedly sexually assaulted a woman. Accusations which Serena herself lends credence to with her own stories of interactions with the man. (Please note that I use the word “allegedly” for the bullshit legal reasons, but I believe victims.) I’d also like to point out that few bands walk the walk like they talk the talk, but Svalbard immediately severed their connection with Holy Roar, despite the risk of losing a well-known label. When a band is angry, righteous, and stands by their ideals, it adds a punch and validity that many bands, and hell, people, lack.
Let us not, however, overshadow the fact that this is a wonderfully complex and elaborate album. From the dreamy intro to “Open Wound,” to the ridiculously catchy pop hook of “Silent Restraint” (which would absolutely open up a pit if live shows were still a thing), to the blast beats and frenzied energy of “The Currency of Beauty.” each song will keep your interest. The guitar tones are rapturous, the bass sits clear in the mix so that the odd flourish stands out, and the drumming loves to masquerade as predictable only to skip a beat or add a fill when you least expect it, and you know I love the d-beat when it lands. Everything is mixed and produced to the perfect balance, and the result is an album just shy of 39 minutes which flies by in the blink of an eye but leaves you with the feeling that you just had a brush with divinity.
I’ve been a fan of Svalbard since I first heard It’s Hard to Have Hope, and it’s hard to compete with the raw sentiment of the statement “I’ll try not to die until I am dead,” which resonated strongly with me in 2018. But When I Die, Will I Get Better? is definitely the question I ask myself a lot in 2020, so it’s safe to say that once again, Svalbard is speaking directly to my soul. Like the very best albums, what sets When I Die, Will I Get Better? apart from the rest is that rather than simply being a great piece of music, it’s a great piece of music that has something worthwhile to say.
I just wish I could do this album the justice it deserves.