On First Listen: FIZZ, ‘The Secret to Life’
I have never taken psychedelic drugs. Based on what I’ve gathered from popular culture and Pete Holmes’ podcast, it’s important to be in the right state of mind. However you’re feeling at the time — anxious, giddy, depressed, bristling with rage — will color the overall experience.
Regardless of the accuracy of that advice, it kept replaying in my brain as I listened to the debut album from indie supergroup FIZZ: a wild and trippy collection of songs winkingly titled The Secret to Life. You either need to be a certain type of person to instantly connect with it (which, apparently, I am) or know what you’re getting into and prepare accordingly.
The 30,000-foot view of the LP (appropriate considering its lead single, “High in Brighton”) is a bundle of harmonies that are most often boisterous with just enough brooding to keep it from being overwhelmingly saccharine. Think: a spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down.
That isn’t to say there isn’t substance. How could there not be with the pedigree attached to it? Orla Gartland's Woman on the Internet was one of my favorite albums of 2021, and Dodie’s from the same year (Build a Problem) was hailed as “promisingly ambitious” for smashing together its folk-pop instrumentation with unflinchingly messy lyrics.
Any time talent like that joins forces — as Gartland and Dodie have done with fellow musicians Greta Isaac and Martin Luke Brown to form FIZZ — there’s potential for diminishment. Critics have lofted a similar argument toward higher-profile targets like boygenius. In the case of The Secret to Life, however, the end result is more than the sum of its parts.
It’s as though having someone else to bounce off took them in directions they never would’ve gone solo, something Gartland mentioned when the band signed with Decca Records back in June. Explaining the quartet’s formation, she called it “a whirlwind of pure joy and escapism, inverting everything each artist knew about making music to produce an album with fun and a love of the craft at its core.”
As is the case with all quotes, taking her comments in isolation undermines what FIZZ ultimately created. Actually, so does the album’s first three songs: elevator-y infomercial “A New Phase Awaits You :-),” the slightly shouty title track, and aforementioned single “High in Brighton.” The trio set an impossible-to-maintain pace and tone, like sprinting off the line of a marathon while screaming at the top of your lungs.
Wisely, the album downshifts to the psychedelically smooth “Strawberry Jam” (it seems someone did a number on those fields The Beatles mentioned) and then allows the first bit of normalcy to poke its head above the water on “Close One.” Gartland’s softly sweet vocals are ideal for the “will we won’t we” lyrics on the track, which serves as The Secret to Life’s version of the little flat part in the middle of a roller coaster where you get a moment to reorient.
That might be the most crucial thing FIZZ — along with producers Peter Miles and Soren Bryce — nailed on this album. As you move from song to song, the ride feels very intentionally built. You can’t throw one loop-de-loop after another. You need more muted moments like “Close One” and especially the a capella penultimate track, “Lights Out,” which serve two purposes:
- Fending off whatever the auditory version of motion sickness is.
- Reminding you how wonderful these musicians sound together.
That, in turn, clears space for things like an ode to Peter Pan syndrome (“Rocket League”) and Dodie’s all-too-infrequent clarinet solos (deployed most effectively in “The Grand Finale”). It’s a feat of creativity and engineering that delivers the “pure joy” Gartland mentioned, as well as the occasional thrill, while making sure you’ll want to ride again.
You can find The Secret to Life streaming on all platforms now and, if you like what you hear, available for purchase on the band’s website.