“I’m conscious of taking up all of the space/With my breath warming the air/Moving the pieces when I speak,” sings Alice Merida Richards on “Return to View”, as retro synths chime and a maraca keeps the beat. It’s a typically thoughtful, off-kilter observation from the singer and co-writer of the Manchester alt-pop outfit Virginia Wing. To be vocal or loud is to recognisably take up room. But, Richards wonders, how does speaking – or singing – instead rearrange the space in which you exist?
Private Life, the brilliant and daring new album from Virginia Wing, who make avant-garde, dream-like pop, often feels chaotic. “Moon Turn Tides” is circus-like in its sonic textures: a train whistle sounds, and then gives way to a glistening xylophone riff and a near-comic tuba parp. On “99 North”, a bright, fast-paced keyboard melody duels with an airy flute motif, before a saxophone solo weaves its way in, accompanied by birdsong.
This results in some real noise, but it doesn’t make Virginia Wing’s music overwhelming – because Richards, along with long-time bandmate Sam Pillay and recent addition Christopher Duffin, give each track space to breathe. This is epitomised in Richards’s distinctive sprechgesang – somewhere between speaking and singing – in which she offers a cool drollness, tonally reminiscent of Julia Holter and Japan’s David Sylvian. Whatever the instrumental juggernaut building beneath her, her words are crisp, her rhythm clear. Her syllables lilt a little, dancing more than if she were simply to speak; but remain weighted to the ground in a way that out-and-out melodic singing rarely affords.
Richards’s half-this, half-that vocal style sounds impressively natural here – but it hasn’t always been that way. On the band’s first two albums, Forward Constant Motion (2016) and Tomorrow’s Gift (2017), she occasionally inhibited a similar tone, but when she did, her voice sat much lower in the mix, any attempts at wryness or playful lyrics lost to the burbling electronica she lay beneath.
For 2018’s Ecstatic Arrow, Richards and Pillay took to the Swiss Alps to record an album which imagined a feminist utopia – “Tell me, where do you go from here?” she asked on album opener “Be Released” – without getting waylaid in describing the tiring ordeal of misogyny. “I don’t wanna have to relive painful experiences to be authentic. I want to see joy and be optimistic and for that to be enough,” she told the Guardian at the time. In writing with such an aim, Richards allowed her vocals to crystallise into something more resolute; as they became more audible they began to sound more purposeful. Virginia Wing’s reputation as a band with something to say (but who would never make that statement in the expected way) was cemented when, on tour with electronica group Hookworms, they grew infuriated with the band’s laddish fans, and performed in front of a projection that read “End Rape Culture” for the remaining dates.
This moral objective remains on Private Life, which, unlike Ecstatic Arrow, lyrically deals with personal accounts of trauma and throbs with a contemporary sonic anxiety. It has a sure pop sensibility that’s more dominant than ever before. “St. Francis Fountain”, which opens with synthetic woodwind before a Oneohtrix Point Never-like harpsichord melody joins the fray, does not immediately suggest easy listening. But soon the song is punctuated by Eighties drop beats. It remains steady, a slow sway rather than anything to jump around to, but has a willing momentum. “Is there an anagram of everyone who’s entered your thoughts?” sings the ever-curious Richards, “Can you tell me if your fantasy is missing the point?”. The drums are stripped back, and her vocals – more melodic here than elsewhere, yet holding onto the wit her new vocal techniques have brought out in her – are layered, resounding like bells in the final beats of the song.
But Virginia Wing don’t rest easy. Those pop-leaning traits are, on “OBW Saints”, pulled apart, guitar riffs slowed down, Richards’s voice treated to sound distant and child-like. She sings of being “a patient waiting for a knife”: “My body’s ruined but I’m moving past the urge/Yes I’m afflicted, but I get pleasure from the work”, the second syllable of “pleasure” given an unlikely emphasis, as though distorting any satisfaction that could come out of it. Duffin plays a silky tenor saxophone solo and then a conductor counts in “When the Saints Go Marching In”, played messily, as though by a school band, the sample punctuated by canned applause. It’s one of just a handful of songs on Private Life that doesn’t ask any questions in its lyrics.
Another is the title track, the only instrumental on the album. It may not feature Richards’s inquisitive gaze, but the ambient electronica of “Private Life” offers a distinct if confounding intimacy; the type you feel when watching planes come in and out of view behind clouds, the sensation that human life is close by, even if you know it, in actuality, to be pretty far away.
“Private Life” is released on Fire Records on 12 February