This review comes with a disclaimer: despite appearances, I do like Royal Blood and I do think that How Did We Get So Dark? is a good album. Plus, anything that can keep Ed Sheeran from number one in the album charts is much appreciated. To add to this their Glastonbury set was brilliant. However, instead of offering banal comments about how How Did We Get So Dark? is ‘good’ (but not excellent), I have decided to criticise this album for the smallest issues.
In theory a new Royal Blood album should be one of the best rock releases of the year. With a debut back in 2014 that blasted your ears into submission with its combination of thundering bass and relentless pace, something equally as effortlessly cool would be expected. At a cursory glance How Did We Get So Dark? delivers on this expectation. However, there is a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that gets harder to ignore the more I listen. It insists that something isn’t quite right – either I have finally gone insane and descended into paranoia, or there are actually a few issues with Royal Blood’s latest release.
The main theme of the album is somewhat predictably about a relationship, and as the title suggests – in that same way that a red label with a skull on it suggests that you probably shouldn’t drink that poison – this is a dysfunctional relationship. Royal Blood are, therefore, sticking to what worked so well in their debut. However, where the aggression of the first album is channelled into mutually messed up relationships, the second seems to channel it into a relationship where the protagonist, for want of a better term, is almost completely to blame. Unless I’m horribly misinterpreting the lyrics – “I only lie when I love you / cos that look on your face says baby I never knew / No one has to know about our little secret” – the protagonist is having an affair. By the time that Sleep closes out the album with a cry of “I don’t wanna sleep”, you’re left thinking that this protagonist doesn’t deserve to sleep. This is perhaps not a bad thing with regards to the album, as Royal Blood would certainly be missing a core part of their character without this aggression and theme of damaged relationships. However, it does make How Did We Get So Dark? difficult to like in terms of the meaning behind the lyrics.
Royal Blood are not famed for lyrical insight, but rather the previously mentioned thundering bass and relentless pace. In this case, I should maybe just rate How Did We Get So Dark? on that. Unsurprisingly, Royal Blood have not got any quieter. Bass guitar riffs smash into you throughout. Nothing here is quite as memorable as Figure It Out or Out Of The Black, but there are still often excellent moments. In combination with earth shaking drums, these bass riffs give Royal Blood a noise level that risks shattering ear-drums. In terms of pace, everything has slowed down almost imperceptibly. This is slightly jarring, especially with the darker tone of the album inviting the opposite. Royal Blood have used the same formula that was so successful in their first album but have arguably executed it to less brilliant effect.
This suggests that maybe Royal Blood need to experiment more to reach their full potential. Some of this is seen in the intro of Hole In Your Heart with the use of keyboards. However, this is soon abandoned in exchange for the familiar bass guitar. The need for more experimentation is most evident with the lack of variety throughout the album. The first album offered enough different riffs to avoid monotony, whilst Figure It Out in particular offered a change in rhythm. How Did We Get So Dark?, on the other hand, is lacking in this department, with none of the songs standing out as different. This means that Royal Blood have still not found what makes them different from a plethora of other hard rockers.
So there we have it, Royal Blood: above average but too easily criticised to be considered excellent.