If Angel in Realtime is ostensibly an ode to David Le’aupepe’s late father, it reveals itself as a portrait of the son, passing back and forth between grief and searching and understanding, in his father’s wake.
In the opening track, You in Everything, Le’aupepe asks of himself: “How do I face the world or raise a fucking kid/Or see beauty in the earth and all its majesty replete/When I’ve spent the better part of my 20s doing self-indulgent bullshit on repeat?” A dozen tracks later, as he contemplates “the sum of a life” in Goal of the Century, he hasn’t found an answer but the path to it looks a little brighter: “Head down I’m writing this shit out/On my phone/A way that I can talk to you/And reach you.”
The tenderness with which Le’aupepe speaks of his father, Tattersall, his two brothers (who he only discovered existed after his father’s death), his wife and ultimately of himself, is the defining feature of Gang of Youths’ third album. As a corollary, forgiveness underpins the emotional landscape he draws, though its components suggest it would not have been easy or guaranteed.
It is not just forgiveness for his father, who left his first family in New Zealand to find work and made a new life and family in Australia (“Come find me/I’m here today but don’t belong/I’m working ’til the debt is gone”). It is also forgiveness for Le’aupepe’s younger self, who could have or should have said more and thought more.
The full complexities of his father’s life, and the wash through several generations, ripple across the songs. The impression created is so vivid that imagined thoughts, like “In the instance of pain, I look straight down at the iris/If the irises fade/I spend days out in the yard/In the absence of rain”, feel truthful. Sure, we are only getting part of the story, but it feels rich with detail and provides the cornerstone to Le’aupepe’s own character, whose loves and second thoughts are chronicled in parallel.
A father who abandoned one family and built another who knew nothing of the first, spinning a story of his own childhood that would only be exposed as a myth after his death. The older sons, who didn’t understand why they had been left; and the younger son, now dealing with the guilt of receiving that love the others didn’t get (“I accounted for the miles of attention/That I got but never want nor choose”), and fearing he’d wasted it. There is so much to tell. Would the only way to tell this story be to present it in an equally full, emotional and dramatic rock-as-done-by-sons-of-Springsteen fashion? That has been the Gang of Youths way until now.
Well, experimentation is evident here, stylistically and instrumentally. There is early 2000s groove-conscious U2 in Tend the Garden, to balance the Eno-era yearning rock U2 found in Spirit Boy. The kinetic rhythm in Forbearance brings to mind the National, as the other side of the coin from, um, the National in The Man Himself’s euphoric chorus. But there’s not much in the way of structural experimentation, and definitely not sonically.
For much of the album, air to breathe is rare, especially the longer the song goes. (Forbearance is a notable exception.) Mostly, sooner or later all the available room is filled with drum loops and live drums, guitars and synths, brass and choirs, strings and piano, marimba and woodwind, sampled voices and sounds of the Cook Islands and traditional Māori instruments.
Certainly those songs perform their function: you may punch the air and twirl around the propulsive rhythms in songs like In the Wake of Your Leave and The Angel of 8th Avenue, delivered in the manner of a heartland rock band with the secret desire to be goths. Returner grows from a folkish heel-tapper to a singing-with-fans-in-the-terraces climax. And Unison is layered with tuned percussion, low brass and strings, until the drum loops override any remaining reticence and a Pasifika Bono brings us home.
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They make all the right moves, the effort writ clearly on the surface of everything, and undoubtedly those packed, hot room concerts will peak regularly with these anthems-in-waiting choruses. But – maybe whisper it – in repetition and volume, these big, bold songs are … perfectly fine.
Instead it is the smaller songs that are the album’s standouts: like Brothers, where Le’aupepe hunches over a piano, almost singing to himself. Or Hand of God, which repeats that formula, except towards the end he is joined by gentle sounds of the Auckland Gospel Choir. The closing track, Goal of the Century, goes back and forth in its seven minutes between voice, piano and low-key strings, and full orchestration. It is not a coincidence that the special moments on Angel in Realtime are the ones that best match the album’s particularly personal story, in being both the most exposed and the most simple.