There has been no question since debut of The Twilight Sad (admittedly a name that isn’t getting any cleverer as time goes on) that they are a “dark” band, the darkness of which took on slightly altered form with each successive album. Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters was almost innocent in its darkness, adolescent in a way, like the first real secret one keeps from one’s family. Forget the Night Ahead was darker, but seemingly less personal, like hearing an escalating domestic dispute a few houses down and doing nothing to stop it. Still, even these dark albums bore hints of something far less superficial that may have made them difficult to return to soon after initial playing. With No One Can Ever Know, however, the listener is given the work of a band that is not simply idiosyncratically bleak with an occasionally extreme sound, but extremist in total.
This time around the band jettisoned the guitar almost entirely and filled the void with a variety of synthesizers. What might be considered “going soft” in traditional cases is not so with this one. The sparser sound actually reveals a greater degree of aching and damage behind the tough front of the previous albums, much like a rage addict in a brief moment of levity. The vocals come off higher in the mix and have an added desperation to them; the rhythm section is lighter but also faster and more precise, like the quickened pulse rather than the pounding fist. The synthesizers themselves, however, are not meant to be wholesale surrogates for the guitars. While some songs are indeed held together by standard chord progressions (most notably the new wave-infused “Don’t Look at Me” and trance-like “Another Bed”), the keys are pressed more for ambience than for melody, a tense ambience at that. What transpires on “Alphabet,” “Don’t Move” and “Nil” recall the steely compositions of most krautrock and the early industrial of Coil and Cabaret Voltaire. Notable respites include “Sick,” the only truly guitar-driven track that’s garnering more than its fair share of Radiohead comparisons, for good or ill, and the powerful closer “Kill It in the Morning,” which trudges at first before rising to a confrontational power-rock on par with, if not superior to, anything on The Fragile.
No One Can Ever Know has all the aggression of the previous albums but instead of catharsis we get anxiety in some places and defeat in others. Images of aging and bodies lying prostrate make repeat appearances John Graham’s ever-impressionistic lyrics which lend to feeling and image more than narrative, like the barely legible parts of burnt letters from scorned loved ones. “You crawl to the window sill, outside is still, by the neck you hold us,” Graham recalls in “Don’t Move.” Who the “you” is to Graham is unclear, though the image is striking enough to inspire different versions in the listener that could all be conceivably correct. “Three girls saw her/ Looking so thin/ Black and bruised skin,” from “Sick” too is both vague and eerie, and could trigger any number of memories in our minds that were trivial at first but become more sinister as time wears on them.
No, dark does not begin to really assess No One Can Ever Know. Much like those albums critics also find kinship with this one (Pornography, The Holy Bible, The Downward Spiral, and, for me anyway, Jane Doe) it goes well beyond the pale into unsettling, if not raw. Such albums do not proffer immediate enjoyment. They cannot be listened to in happiness or sadness, or at least in sadness commonly understood. The gulf between how far the listener is willing to go and how far the band is forcing them to be taken is massive and irreparable; if not for the immaculate artistry we’d be shunning it altogether. Like an abandoned asylum we shudder at its horrors while marveling its design.