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Kaleo’s “Surface Sounds” is Finally Here, and it is Spectacular

The new album from Kaleo is a masterful exploration of the world today

Surface Sounds, Kaleo

Kaleo are back, this time with their newest album Surface Sounds. Originally scheduled for release last year, Surface Sounds finally graced our ears on the 23rd of April, 2021. I have been long-anticipating this album, after loving A/B, and feeling like I’d never heard a bad song from the group. 

The album as a whole is very similar to previous work and is released with Elektra, the same label as A/B. You can tell how much thought JJ Julius Son, who writes the majority of the music and lyrics, poured into this record. There is a natural flow between the tracks, but each one is noticeably different from the last.  

The album art is also stunning, with an iceberg that becomes a volcano as it rises above the waterline. The contrast is beautiful and the message reflects the album lyrically. The more I learned about this album the more excited I was to hear it.

Brother Run Fast

This first track begins very strong. With an intro that sounds like delicate droplets falling onto glass and then a stunning vocal crescendo this is the perfect song to open the album. 

The message of the song seems to reflect a warning – a message that you need to protect yourself from what is coming your way, and to stand true and strong. This implication is a theme that arises many times in Surface Sounds, and it might well be what we all need to hear. It is a powerful message that hit all the right spots for me. 

Throughout the track the tempo stays quite slow – certainly slower than a typical Kaleo track, but we keep the electric guitar and the strength of vocals. The second half of the song feels almost cinematic, like it was made to accompany something spectacular. The violins swell and the lyrics feel more desperate and passionate. I can’t fault this introduction to what I knew straight away would be an incredible album. 

Break My Baby

This was actually the second song I heard from the album, back when I pre-ordered it a few months ago. It’s a very classic Kaleo song: a gradual build that becomes heavier with rock and grit nearer the end. 

The title and main refrain seem like a play on words, somebody not quite sure if they want a break from the person they are singing to or if they want to break that person. The song itself doesn’t delve into this much deeper, but suggests a superficial relationship that needs something more.  

This song was one of the less memorable songs of the album for me. I’m not quite sure why – perhaps because I had already heard it many times before, or perhaps because it sounds similar to the old Kaleo era music and therefore it blended into the background. Despite this, when I sat down and listened to it again for the purposes of this review, I realised the quality and depth of the track, and I love it. 

Alter Ego

Definitely one of the rockier songs of the album, ‘Alter Ego’ plays up the skills of Rubin Pollock on electric guitar, and allows JJ to show off his full vocal range. It was only after a few listens that I actually picked up on the main messages of this track. 

The lyrics here read like a warning, “Baby you’ll hurt yourself”, but “I might just be the one”. It’s a less profound message than those injected in other tracks, and more of a release of pent-up energies and frustrations. It feels good to hear, but I didn’t connect with this track like I did with some of the others. 

Although I love the way Kaleo always put their all into the music, this one wasn’t one of my favourites, purely because it is a little on the ‘busier’ side than I prefer. There is a lot going on in the backing, instrumentals and, although I love and appreciate the sheer talent, it isn’t the kind of song I would want to listen to on repeat. But if heavier rock is up your street, this is the track for you. 

Free The Slave

This song started with a more stripped-back style. There were just a couple of guitars in the background, and a gentle vocal melody voices contempt for the destruction of freedoms. There is not much I can tell you about this song; it is one that you need to hear for yourself. 

Skinny

No question about it, ‘Skinny’ is my Surface Sounds highlight, an absolute gem of a song that reminds us all what we have done. It calls out so many of the weaknesses our society has, and asks us to look them in the face. We are forced to think about what we do to ourselves, and what we allow ourselves to think. With lyrics about teenage suicides, women starving themselves to remain ‘attractive’, and many other harms we cause ourselves as a collective, this song is not only an incredible tune, but it also highlights so many of the issues that are important not just to the band but to all of us.  

One lyric especially – “you have to stay hungry, for the fans” – sounds like it is also a reference to eating less in order to stay skinny and appear more attractive. However, the first time I heard this song I took it as a reference to how much we push artists to be hungry metaphorically – how much we push for more music and more art and more albums… without really considering how this pushes them towards burnout. I don’t know which was the intended message, but, either way, the song is provocative. 

Outside of the important messages, this song is the perfect balance for me between the pop and rock genre that Kaleo criss-cross between. There are definitely moments near the end of the song that are heavy and instrumentally powerful, but the vocals are never consumed by this and the melody remains intact and packs a punch (right in the gut). 

I also can’t move on to the next track without mentioning the video that surfaced a few days ago of the band performing this song on top of an active volcano. It was an incredible opportunity to create something truly spectacular. 

Hey Gringo

I was curious when I saw the title of this song. I was pleasantly surprised by the easy-going intro beat and the swinging melody. Very similar in sound to much of A/B, this song focuses on a romantic encounter, but it remains light and upbeat, with backing vocals and a little bit of brass. 

JJ sings “I’ve sold my soul to a woman in Mexico”, and makes references to drugs and “selling my soul to rock and roll”. All of these aspects – along with the catchy melody – make this track a lot of fun. I think, without this, the album would feel more one-dimensional. While that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, I think this little pop of fun is great. 

My Fair Lady 

This song felt more vulnerable than the others, and more personal. Despite some of the intense topics that have already been touched upon, this song speaks about the intimacy between two people, and about how we weaken for those we care about. 

Musically, this song is very simple. The background is not quiet, but it is emptier than what we are used to rom this group. The focus is on the meaning behind the song’s lyrics and poetry than the melodies and instrumentals. Like the previous track, this also creates a beautiful contrast that makes the album feel more complete. It’s a wonderful song that tells the story of the emotions we allow ourselves to show those we care for. It almost makes me feel nostalgic. 

I Want More

This song was the first single I came across from this album and it, in the way music sometimes does, felt like it had come at just the right time for me. A stunning song about love and nostalgia and gentle rhythms that feel calming and serene, ‘I Want More’ makes me feel peaceful. It is very well put together in a way that made me hopeful about this album from the start, and it gives off a very powerful energy. 

More so than in previous work, this album is presented in a way that solidifies how crucial meaning is as well as melody to Kaleo’s work. In my opinion at least, it is the combination of both factors that leads so many of their songs, like this one, to feel just *that* good. 

Backbone

The third song I heard from Surface Sounds, ‘Backbone’ reflects much of the message in ‘Brother Run Fast’. JJ repeatedly asks, “Where’s your backbone brother?”, and encourages us to look within ourselves to find courage and strength. This is a repeated idea in Surface Sounds, and it has great societal value at the moment. 

‘Backbone’ is a song that wants us to believe in ourselves. It feels like a passionate exploration of how much we can be pushed forward by others, and how much we must do by ourselves. The lyrics are pleading someone to find their backbone, after apparently realising that they are the only ones who can make their life better. It’s encouraging and emotional, and one of my favourites from the album. 

Musically, ‘Backbone’ is very classic Kaleo style. There are heavier moments near the end of the track, and the themes are consistent with the group’s others works. 

I Walk On Water

This song is about self-belief. JJ sings that he can walk on water, and asks “Put your trust in me”. This is, of course, open to interpretation. But, to me, it feels more as though he is asking himself to trust himself, more so than he is asking someone else to trust him. After the repeated messages in previous tracks about self-doubt or self-destruction, this feels like an acceptance and a healing. It is perfectly placed as the penultimate track. 

This song feels like growth and happiness, and it puts a smile on my face. The backing vocals have returned and there is again a swelling of music that feels as though it belongs in a film. This is certainly a strong track. 

Into My Mother’s Arms

The opening of this song sounds like a children’s music box. The lyrics are dark, “I can’t face the world outside”, “It feels like no-one’s on my side, then I look into my mother’s eyes”. It seems to be suggesting that, if you can’t fix your negativity within yourself, it is time to turn to those closest to you for refuge.  

I enjoy the message here – as if we are being encouraged to work on ourselves, but also being told that if we can’t that isn’t a failure and we should not be afraid to ask for help. The lyrics are very comforting for this reason, and there are piano chords in the background, but it’s kept very simple and, once more, we are being asked to focus on the lyrics and the message more so than any distracting frills in the musical accompaniment. 

This track is an excellent outro to a very strong album. If you have liked any of Kaleo’s work this is a great album for you; there is a great mix of classic Kaleo sounds, intensely passion-driven lyrics, and catchy, lighter melodies. Each song takes you on a very different journey, and each showcases an incredible skill and precision. I enjoyed this album immensely and it was worth the wait. 

Written by Anna Flaherty

Politics graduate based in the UK. I'm passionate about writing so I can usually be found buried in ink and paper. Proud writer for 25YL!

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