In The Realms of the Unreal was the magnum opus of Henry Darger — transgressive outsider artist extraordinaire, from whose work Vivian Girls take their name — and though this territory may not have been where our journey with the Girls began, it is where we now begin to find ourselves. Or, to put it another way, for 60s revivalists, the quest for (the) Shangri-La(s) continues. On their third album, Vivian Girls lift their gaze purposefully from their shoe uppers and direct it squarely at the dizzily lost horizons of that decade. If happy endings are synonymous with fictional utopias, then Share The Joy (named unironically after the Bacharach track) by the Girls’ own confession represents the culmination of the band’s quest through Darger-esque landscapes, harsh and perverse but nonetheless naïvely gorgeous. However, speaking of fiction, we might ask whether the experience thus interpreted by the artists is identical for the listener, or whether, to the contrary, it is the angst of the journey, and not the arrival at a transcendent end-point, that imparts bliss (necessarily alloyed) for an all-too-human audience.
The 60s have never been the Girls’ sole point of reference, but here the decade remains very much in evidence, at the expense of the shoegaze influences found on their earlier albums. Their work continues to feature alluring girl-group harmonies on top of guitars that owe as much of a debt to the lo-fi noise pop of the 80s and 90s as to garage scuzz (which, like the aforementioned shoegaze gauziness, is now less in evidence). The addition of organ adds a brushed-fingertip touch of psychedelia to the proceedings, alluding both to the mysticism mentioned above and to the darker side of the lyrical concerns of bands like ? and The Mysterians or even early Stooges (particularly on the murderous “Sixteen Ways”). Fortunately, new drummer Fiona Campbell hasn’t lost sight of the loping and at times quasi-military rhythms that constitute one of the group’s most distinctive aspects, setting them apart from the rest of the revivalists.
Share The Joy somewhat incoherently combines the tendencies of the self-titled debut — a brief, sweet burst of energy — with those of the second album, which explored darker, more lingering landscapes. The vocals are higher in the mix than heretofore, exposing lyrics that are, for the most part, straightforward — and, unlike Darger’s polymorphroditic genderfuck, very straight — tales of love and loss similar to those of the Girls’ retro-noise-pop contemporaries or their girl group forebears. Vocal weaknesses on high and sustained notes are revealed, which had previously been buried beneath fuzzy layers of distortion. And the hooks aren’t as hooky as they used to be, though the further development of taut, extended guitar solos that began on Everything Goes Wrong mitigates this somewhat.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to like. “Take It As It Comes,” with its spoken-word interludes, is the Girls’ most obvious homage yet to the girl groups of the 60s, and successfully walks the dangerous line between melancholy cuteness and retro kitsch. The harmonies, whether joyful or poignant, remain shimmeringly sexy, and as the pace slows, one can’t help but be reminded not only of the more obvious influences mentioned above, but also of the wistful euphonies of 80s synthpop groups like Strawberry Switchblade or Book of Love. A pensive tone and a newfound (but sporadic) lyrical obliqueness give teasing hints of future possibilities. And there remains a quality of complex yet adorable sincerity that makes the Girls hard not to fall for.
In Crazy House, Darger’s unfinished sequel to In The Realms of the Unreal, the Vivian heroines must exorcise a possessed abode of its murderous ghosts. Share The Joy sees our own Vivians enter into a similar contretemps: locking horns with death and with demons (literally, on “Trying To Pretend”), they achieve a narrative victory that nonetheless remains, for the auditor, a work in progress.