Promenade Cinema rather burst out of their native Sheffield a couple of years ago, with a handful of striking, elegant singles and a sensational debut album LIVING GHOSTS, that this site saw fit to award Album of the Year on /Countdown/Albums/2018. I still love that album, too, and did have a little fear in the back of my mind that I might be disappointed with what came next.
I shouldn’t really have worried. This second album takes them in new directions, sure – and absolutely sees them adding new elements to their sound – but also sees them wisely ensuring that there are threads that take you back to where you’ve been. But then, as the saying goes, why try to fix what ain’t broke?
Perhaps in the fashions of music releases nowadays, EXIT GUIDES is a shorter, perhaps slightly snappier release than the debut – just eight songs in around forty-minutes, although much like what came before, some of the songs are lengthy still. We’re already familiar here with the first two tracks – the ghostly, stately tiptoe forward of The Arch House has grown on me an awful lot, while the sleek thrills of Cold Fashion results in one of a couple of dancefloor-aimed bangers here.
The other of the latter has perhaps more depth than fashion (although image, once again, plays an important part). Thus, the pulsating She’s an Art both plays on classic eighties synthpop tropes and more modern views of women. Amid the soaring, thumping rhythms and huge chorus, there are images of the beautiful, dangerous temptress (oh-so-eighties, yes), but also a much darker, spoken word delivery of an effective auction of beautiful women, reminding us that in many realms, women are still just objects to be sold, and while some things have moved on since the eighties, too many men have not.
The other new song aired late last year was the predatory Passions In The Back Room, then the shining star of the new songs I heard that night, and here very much the centrepiece and best track on the album. Moody verses with vocals by Dorian (and in no way meant to detract from the brilliance of this song, he doesn’t half sound like Anders from Ashbury Heights here) take things slowly, to allow the song to explode into life in a huge chorus where Emma takes the vocals, in a song that suggests illicit goings-on behind closed doors and is ultimately a thrilling four minutes.
Another thing the duo made clear on their debut was their skill with balladry, too, and here there are more examples of their excellence in that arena. The drowsy, beatless After the Party, It’s Over feels like an anthem for these strange times, with weeping synthesised strings providing the only backing to mournful vocals from Emma, as she details the comedown from something great, which right now could be seen also as the temporary pause in life as we know it that we are experiencing. Even bleaker is Memoirs on Glass, full of gentle piano and more strings that are constructed around a soft heartbeat of a rhythm. It appears to be a song drenched in memory, in fragments of images taking them back to moments in their past that are gone, and feels deeply, deeply sad.
The lengthy, pretty Nothing Nouveau is an interesting one, too. Taking, it seems, the idea of a performer’s doubts as they take the applause, question their own worth and then get shot down by the press – perhaps a sly dig at their own expectations in writing a second album, after their first being so well-received. Were they expecting to be shot down? Happily from this point of view, there’s certainly no shooting down. This is a great album, perhaps not always with the immediate magic of the first, but as lead single The Arch House proved, it will take time to fully appreciate the depth here, and they have taken the opportunity to develop their sound rather than just replicate the same again.
That said, the elegance of the closing Fading In The Arcade perhaps loops us back. Another song referencing past memories, the ghosts of ecstasy long past, but here it feels celebratory. As Emma’s vocals are multi-tracked to astounding effect in the geyser-like push of the chorus – never mind the spine-chilling quasi-choral elements in the coda – this is an unexpectedly positive close to what is broadly an album that prefers to step into the shadows.
An album that appears to be examining the idea of self-image, how we present ourselves, how we deal with critique and more importantly, what we don’t wish to reveal, has the one moment that drops its guard just before they take their curtain call. A fiercely intelligent, creative synthpop band continue to build their own legend with this album, but they are making you work for it here. Stick with them, they have a world of treasures to reveal in time.
Exit Guides is out now.