Dana Margolin, lead singer of Porridge Radio, demands precise environmental conditions on "Back To The Radio," the first song on the British band's new album Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky: "Lock all the windows and shut all the doors / And get into the house and lie down on the cold hard floor." Only then can she focus on the work she needs to do. "We cannot get better if we can't talk about it," she sings. Margolin's known since the band's 2016 debut album, Rice, Pasta and Other Fillers, that good intentions are meaningless without the effort necessary to make them real. Back then, her songs evidenced a hesitation to act on that knowledge, an impulse to retreat from the world at the sight of conflict. On Waterslide, though, she only withdraws so she can better face down everything she might have missed before, both the good and the bad.
Getting better was also the goal on Every Bad, the band's 2020 album filled with refrains that punished like screws twisting into wood with every repetition. "I don't want to get bitter, I want us to get better," Margolin chanted on "Lilac," the lyric fraying as she screamed. Its earnestness crowned bands like Beat Happening and Tiger Trap, whose focus on the mundane and the joyous revolutionized punk's sensibilities while remaining informed by its sound, as Porridge Radio's forebears. On Waterslide, Margolin is more ruthless with her self-interrogations and ready to admit that she can be an obstacle to herself. She establishes the stakes early on when she asks questions about change and stasis on the sing-song "Trying": "What if I never get it right? What if I don't come back to life?" There's no pretense of an answer; the listener is just a witness to her anxieties.
For Margolin, a truthful examination of emotional life precludes easy resolutions. Across the album, an equal fall backward into neglect meets any movement she makes toward getting better. "Flowers" is a photo-negative of the mission-driven opening track, bleaker and slower but with the same pattern of speech. Its intensity startles; Margolin flips from an image of soft tomatoes to stating: "If I am punished I am free from the bad." When the track gives way to a piano-driven breakdown like Coldplay's "Clocks," it seems like the pressure might evaporate with it. But as the song ends, Margolin lifts her voice higher to sing about emptying out gunk from her heart: "I said it was clear but I know that it wasn't." It's not a defeat, but a reminder that self-deceit can poison any attempt at change.
Deluding yourself requires that you at least know the direction you're trying to go, and in these songs, Margolin usually doesn't. That condition propels her writing's humor as she hunts for bigger and bigger contradictions within herself. On "U Can Be Happy If U Want To," she details how her skin, head and voice are stuck to someone else's, building to a single proclamation: "I don't need anything." Her claim complicates when you consider the previous track "Rotten," which ends with the admission "I'm afraid of taking what I need." Sometimes she layers contrasting exhortations with doubts within the span of a single track. "Jealousy," limping and dark like Portishead's unsettling noir rock, replicates the confused state of mind that jealousy produces. "Nothing makes me quite as sad as you," she sings, before immediately taking it back: "Nothing makes me sad." Margolin knows that life isn't confusing just because it's hard to pinpoint what's right and what's wrong, but because multiple contrasting truths can exist at once within you.
According to press materials, a chance encounter with a collage by British-Argentine visual artist Eileen Agar inspired the record's title. Agar's works consist of surprising unions of the strange and playful, and so does Porridge Radio's music, present when the band uses a hymn-like synth line to lead into a lyric about pushing out a splinter ("Splintered") or turns a simple confession of heartache volcanic with a guitar solo ("The Rip"). In its embrace of the absurd and surreal, the band is like fellow British rock experimentalists Dry Cleaning, whose lead vocalist Florence Shaw pulls pathos and humor from collisions of found text and often inscrutable observations of the world around her. While Shaw deadpans the detritus of life, Margolin screams the banal events that fill up the day onto spiraling vertigo. "A fear of death, a fear of dying / Why won't the dog pick up the stick?" she spits out on "Birthday Party." It often seems that Margolin's ragged voice and the phrases she repeats on nearly every track are all that's tethering her to the physical world. It's a high-stakes game; repeat a word or phrase one too many times and it might lose its meaning completely.
By trying to make sense of the incomprehensible, Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky functions similarly to elegy, a poetic genre whose lack of a set form or structure attempts to accommodate the variability of grief and seeming impossibility of death. "Back To The Radio" reminds me of "Funeral Blues," a famous elegy by British-American poet W. H. Auden. "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, / Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone," the narrator demands in that poem's first lines, similarly calling for the right environmental conditions in order to consider the death of his loved one. "Silence the pianos and with muffled drum / Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come." While Margolin's call to shutter a house and lie down on the floor is not the same as asking the entire planet to quiet, it contains a similar ambition to find time and space to figure it all out. And throughout the record, she points to a lot of things she needs to figure out: what it means to want; if moving forward is possible; whether Porridge Radio deserves any of the success its found. It'll take a lot more than one record to get there, and until then, at least Porridge Radio is willing to talk about it.