by Rob Mair

There’s a conspiracy theory out there that says the world ended in 2012, and that everything else that is subsequently happening is merely a reduction – a glitch in the matrix, as it were –  of what has gone before. 

There is a definite argument that the world has ended, culturally-speaking, and we’re now in a race to the bottom to find the lowest common denominator. Online debates are invariably reductive, with two sides entrenched with their views and an exchange of ideas more a shouting match than civil discussion. This idea of cultural degradation is echoed by online language, which is confrontational, fanning the flames of dissension at an ever-quickening pace. 

Equally, every man-made crisis is played out in the blink of an eye, dissected to death by talking heads on TV and online commentators before the next moral panic takes over; sometimes, things move so fast each catastrophe crashes into another. 

Remember the climate debate? It feels like a lifetime ago since Greta Thunberg was on the front pages. Yet, here we are, barely twelve months down the line, and the narrative has been superseded by other equally important campaigns, such as Black Lives Matter, coronavirus or Brexit (again). Debate and nuance are dead, with right-wing governments intent on “controlling the narrative.”

It’s certainly an interesting time for musicians. Such issues are explored with some success on The Homeless Gospel Choir’s This Land Is Your Landfill; a concept album about the end of the world, where the only way out is to ride a metaphorical sea of shit and detritus to reach safe land.

Ireland’s The Winter Passing may not be directly tackling the end of the world – literal or otherwise – but in the middle of a pandemic and culture war, it’s a heck of a time to return with an album called New Ways of Living, as we catch up over the phone a week prior to the album’s release.

Such a cautiously optimistic title also reflects the ups and downs experienced by vocalist/songwriter Rob Flynn over the last eight months, after the group finished recording their second album back in November 2019 and signed off final mixes in January 2020.

“I feel like the album has been like a lamp, acting as a light,” he says about this intervening period. “On a personal level, everybody has had to go through this pandemic. Then there has also been the Black Lives Matter campaign, and that seems to have struck a chord with everybody on the planet. Having the album in the background, it has been nice to have people say, ‘I like your song’.

“In the early days of coronavirus, I was literally just trying to see the positive. Everything had fallen to utter shit. We spent a period of time thinking that we should probably hold back on the album coming out because we weren’t going to be able to tour it or anything. Then, after being in total isolation, I noticed that music was so important because it was the only avenue of positivity. When I listened to the album, after one or two songs I’d feel much more positive towards music. Then we felt terrible about our record again about two weeks ago as it was right in the midst of the Black Lives Matter campaign; I was saying, ‘I don’t want to promote our shit, there are bigger problems in the world right now’.”

Even if they delayed the release of their album, there was no sign the coronavirus or the wider social upheaval were going anywhere. Throw in the long period between November and July, and even if the band wanted to hold back the record until normality returned, it wouldn’t make much sense to sit on songs that could be approaching their first birthday before they saw the light of day.

Similarly, the idea of music as a beacon might seem to oversell the importance of the arts, but for Flynn – a barber in Dublin’s Temple Bar, who has had to close his shop during lockdown – having this release to look forward to has helped focus the mind and give the group something to look forward to.

Even doing press – often seen as a necessary evil by time-poor bands – has allowed Flynn to reconnect with the songs on New Ways of Living during the enforced lockdown, giving him the chance to talk through the album’s themes and ideas.

An excitable chap at the best of times, his enthusiasm bubbles over with tangents thrown on tangents as he talks things through. At one point, with the release date looming, such discussions were something Flynn was not looking forward to. By the time Track 7 calls, he’s well and truly warmed to the act.

“It has felt good to talk this stuff out over the past few weeks,” says Flynn. “I can really appreciate the record now. In my daily life, I wouldn’t have even been able to appreciate it on the level that I have. Now, especially when I get on the phone call and can chat it out, I can kind of see the huge significance in this piece of art that I’ve made with my friends.”

And he should be proud. New Ways of Living is undoubtedly the best version of themselves that The Winter Passing (completed by vocalist/keyboardist Kate Flynn, guitarists Jamie Collison and Marty Ryan and drummer Kevin O’Shea) has committed to tape. It’s a record that pushes the boundaries far beyond the perky pop-punk with which they’re most associated, with a first rate production job by Neil Kennedy (Creeper, Milk Teeth, Boston Manor) helping to draw together the many strands into a cohesive whole. 

While there’s still plenty of such hyperactivity to be found in the likes of ‘Ghost Thing’, ‘The Street and The Stranger’ and ‘Melt’, there are also moments like ‘Crybaby’ – which owes as much to later-era No Doubt or Gwen Stefani’s solo work as it does The Wonder Years – or the exceptional near seven-minute closer ‘Mind Yourself’, which shows the group can mix pathos with punk rock expertly.

Indeed, it’s easy to see New Ways of Living as an album of two halves; the first a sturdy nod to the tried and trusted, the second an acknowledgement of the group’s broader influences, taking in the likes of noise-rock pioneers Sonic Youth and math-rock legends American Football. For Flynn, this desire to push the sound comes back to learning from what worked on 2015’s full-length debut A Different Space of Mind.

“What we found with A Different Space of Mind is that, headspace wise, when we were making it, we were simply thinking about it in this way – ‘Let’s write some rock songs, some darker rock songs, and a couple of poppy songs’.

“But after that first record came out, we always felt that the song everybody liked was ‘Daisy’. Even now, if we leave it out of the set, people go mad. So, we’ve always found that indie-rock, quirky stuff that ‘Daisy’ was, that’s the niche that resonates the most. It was a case of ‘OK, that’s the sound, let’s run with that.”

Linked to this, argues Flynn, is the idea of legacy. With a successful business to keep him occupied, he questions how long he would want to continue in music. Having been a band for the best part of a decade, The Winter Passing have already faced the dilemma of splitting previously. But instead of folding, the group expanded, firstly to a quartet and now with the arrival of Anna’s Anchor’s Marty Ryan, a quintet.

With New Ways of Living, they’ve doubled down and thrown everything into it, with Flynn saying it was his ambition to “put out one great emo record” in his life. For all the experimentation, he might just have achieved this aim.

“Everyone still calls me The Emo Kid, which is great. It’s a great tag; I’m very proud of that, that all these years later I’m still The Emo Kid. I still feel young because of it. But when we put out A Different Space of Mind, I don’t think it was the shot that we wanted to fire at that time.

“The game plan for this album was, if I’m The Emo Kid and I’m 30 years of age, I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this for. It won’t be forever, but right now I’m itching to do it – I want to put out one great emo record, which I can look back on and go ‘Fuck yeah, that was sick’. And that to me is what New Ways of Living is now. The first half is solid, quirky, punky fast, high energy songs. But if you’ve seen us live, you’ll know we’re tight-ass musicians, and there’s so much going on in the second half of the record; we tried to throw a little charm at it, in our own way.”

In truth, it’s this charm that makes New Ways of Living work so well. Even at their most experimental – and the likes of ‘Crybaby’, ‘Greetings from Tipperary’ and ‘Mind Yourself’ all push the group into new territory with relative ease – there’s an undeniable heart at the centre of The Winter Passing which sells every single second of their sophomore effort.  

New Ways of Living might come dressed as an emo record, but it’s really a strikingly poignant portrait of the artist as a young man. It’s an album that embraces its protagonist’s flaws and battles, but still has the character to raise a smile no matter how serious the subject matter. Encapsulating strength, struggle, and hope in ten perfectly observed songs, it’s a fitting soundtrack for the end of the world.