By: Ruby Garff
I don’t often lose myself in music. All I know is that I hear something, I like it, and it goes onto my playlists. It’s rare that a whole album manages to engage me all the way through, with me regularly listening to every single song. But at the beginning of 2022, Australian indie-rock band Gang of Youths released their third studio album, Angel in Realtime. This album is sweeping. It’s big in its emotions, narrative, and sound, and it’s exceptional. It occupies a place in my heart and in my brain that I don’t think will vacate anytime soon.
If you’ve heard of Gang of Youths or heard a song of theirs, it’s most likely “Achilles Come Down.” At 7 minutes long, this song is more of a sprawling epic than a song. As you can probably glean from the title, the band tells the tale of the Greek hero Achilles who spends the song contemplating jumping off of a roof and taking his own life. He balances the reassuring voice of the narrator urging him to reconsider and “come down” with his own negative, intrusive thoughts. This song made its rounds on TikTok in 2020, earning it nearly 82 million listeners on Spotify. It heavily features the strings and classical backing Gang of Youths is known for. Other popular Gang of Youths songs include “Let Me Down Easy,” a personal favorite of mine, and “Magnolia,” which represents nearly everything I love about Angel In Realtime. “Magnolia,” like Angel In Realtime, is insanely personal, in a way that makes it feel like even listening is intruding. It’s focused on the story of lead singer and songwriter David Le’aupepe’s suicide attempt. Despite its heavy subject matter, it’s catchy, feeling almost like an anthem. The soft pre-chorus builds up to the explosive chorus, keeping the same sense of momentum and energy throughout the whole song. “Magnolia” thrust Gang of Youths forward and into the spotlight, performing exceptionally well in the band’s home country of Australia, reaching platinum status in 2018. It remains their third most listened-to song on Spotify.
While obviously not exactly an underground band with their 1.7 million monthly Spotify listeners, Gang of Youths has always roused more success in Australia and in the UK, failing to make quite the same impact here in the US. Angel in Realtime didn’t chart in the US when it came out in February 2022. It got up to #10 in the UK and soared to the very top of Australia’s ARIA chart.
Angel in Realtime is deeply personal and every single song is beautifully written, feeling like something ripped straight from the brain of lead singer David Le’aupepe without any filter. This can sometimes make the album feel like a lot to swallow. It’s heavy and seems to have so much raw emotion, as David Le’aupepe seems to peel back nearly every layer of himself for the listener to see (or hear). Only 1 song is under 4 minutes long–that being “angel of 8th ave.”, which is the most popular song on the album and one of my favorites. If you are starting anywhere with Angel in Realtime, start with “angel of 8th ave.” Three songs are over 6 minutes and one matches “Achilles Come Down” at 7. Le’aupepe doesn’t sacrifice any of his vision or mince his own words, and in my opinion, that makes this album even more beautiful to listen to.
The core of Angel In Realtime album is Le’aupepe’s father, who passed away in 2018. After his passing, Le’aupepe discovered his dad had other children Le’aupepe never knew about, living in his father’s home country of Samoa. Everything spreads out from this point of origin, and each lyric focuses on a different branch of this story. This is a real and innately human story of family, love, grief, and eventual acceptance. It does this all while crafting a unique, and intricately built soundscape. Everything about Angel In Realtime makes it a breathtaking thing to listen to.
The first song on the album is “you in everything,” which is a fitting way to dive in. There’s about a minute before Le’aupepe’s vocals even start where you’re introduced to a range of sounds that’ll be used on this album. The orchestral strings, the indigenous music, the traditional rock electric sounds, and the guitar. This roster of sounds grows alongside the album, all a part of its rich identity. “You in everything” starts with the recounting of the death of Le’aupepe’s father, as he seems to put every ounce of his grief into words. It’s the first song he wrote for the album, and follows his first steps into his life without his dad, while he still seems to follow him everywhere.
So if there’s something of you here in the ever-changing light
Holding close to my unsteady heart and bonding me to life
May your spirit never leave me in the boredom
And the utterly sublime
“In the wake of your leave,” the second song is similar in theme and tone but firmly cements itself on the pop side of Gang of Youth’s discography. It’s catchy, energetic, and percussive. The drums of band member, Donnie Borzestowski, take a hold of you here, and you kind of just want to dance or scream the lyrics of the chorus emphatically along with Le’aupepe. Similarly infectious are “tend the garden,” “the man himself,” and “the angel of 8th ave.”
“Tend the garden” sees Le’aupepe take on his father’s perspective and adopt his voice. This comes after “unison,” which was inspired by Le’aupepe’s return to Samoa, the very trip where he learned of his father’s muddled past. It was also a trip he took with his wife, who is the subject of “the angel of 8th ave.”–the album’s most popular and radio-friendly song, with a distinct lack of classical instrument backing as seen on nearly every other song surrounding it. Though almost sickeningly romantic, even “the angel of 8th ave,” a devout love song, has mentions of Le’aupepe’s father and the overarching theme of death and loss.
And when my old man was near to the end
You loved his broken body
In the same way that I did
I love “the angel of 8th ave.” I love the catchy hook and bass line. I love the beautifully crafted romantic lyrics. I love the ending that sees Le’aupepe reach a crescendo, as he repeats, “there’s heaven in you now” 8 times.
A piece of the album is constantly in the hands of Le’aupepe’s identity and culture. Much of it is inherently spiritual. Le’aupepe is learning and growing. He is constantly learning about his father and his culture and who he is. Gang of Youths used backing vocals of pacific islander music in the form of samples recorded by David Fanshawe, and new recordings from The Auckland Gospel Choir to signify Le’aupepe’s culture. “The kingdom is within you,” is like “tend the garden,” in the way it examines his father’s life. His dad is a Pasifika immigrant living in New Zealand, facing everything that has been forced upon him because of who he is. Pasifika immigrants saw New Zealand as a nest for new opportunities and hope, though those who came to the country were often used for cheap labor.
Night work shattered me with overtime and they fined me
White kids say they sympathise
But they’re afraid to look me in the eyes
Up, up, up, up, up in the sky some place
I got treasures up in heaven and the state just takes the rest
One of the most unique things about Angel in Realtime is how it layers on a variety of sounds, bringing classical music together with rock, adding in pop-like percussion, infectious rock bass, and some electronic beats. “spirit boy” even includes an interlude of Shane McLean speaking in Te Reo Maori. This all makes it even more striking when in “brothers” all of that is stripped and what remains is David Le’aupepe, a piano, and his family’s story. Le’aupepe’s story is packed full of drama, but he’s not relying on the shock value here. Everything he writes is just how things are.
I know our father had his reasons
But that can never make it right or fair
And I hate myself for stealing all his love
When my brothers thought that he was dead
The 10th track is “forbearance,” one of the least popular songs on the album, but one of my personal favorites. It tells another side of the story of “Magnolia,” focusing on Le’aupepe’s suicide attempt and the guilt he feels in the wake of his father’s illness and eventual death. It places more emphasis on the electric beats the album features. Just when the song seems like it’s come to an end, the music from the indigenous people of the pacific islands that have been in the whole song, comes front and center, as Le’aupepe comes in at the end to repeat the refrain
Rise and rise, you great old thing
Rise and rise and shine over me
“The man himself,” is another single off Angel in Realtime. It’s easy to see why. After so many songs heavy with emotion, “the man himself” immediately supersedes the opening strings with triumphant percussion and vocals from The Auckland Gospel Choir. It feels like a victory, and it feels like hope. While much of the album has been reflecting on the past, “the man himself” and the other final songs take the time to look forward.
The emotional conclusion of the album comes in the form of the closing two songs I often find it hard to separate, for they feel so connected in meaning, tone, and theme. The two songs even share codependent titles. The title of “hand of god,” is a reference to a goal scored by Argentinian Diego Maradona in the Argentina vs England quarter-finals match of the 1986 World Cup. Maradona secured the goal by illegally using his hand, a move that went undetected by officials at the time. The game-winning goal also went to Maradona four minutes later, which in stark contrast to the illegality and illegitimacy of the first goal, went down as one of the greatest single football points of all time. Later dubbed, “goal of the century,” which is also the name of the final song of Angel in Realtime. “Hand of god” is relatively short; like “brothers,” it’s stripped down to just Le’aupepe and his piano. In contrast, “goal of the century” is 7 minutes long and opens with just strings and piano. The classical sounds are eventually joined by more indigenous vocals and subtle electronic backing. Everything dies down nearly 2 ½ minutes through the song to let Le’aupepe’s vocals in for the first time. Despite the slow start, the chorus of “goal of the century,” feels like the perfect conclusion to Angel in Realtime. It’s joyous in the same way “the man himself” is, as Le’aupepe’s journey concludes, and he accepts the death of his father. The end of the song is just a testament to the idea that life will keep moving. Nothing stops, not even for death, and maybe that’s a good thing. It gives us all the chance to move on and get better.
Le’aupepe had this to say about the song: “Life is continuing whether or not I want it to or not. My dad is gone, things unfold, people are born, people die, babies are born, they get older…managers change, F1 drivers drive, the train keeps chugging along in the nighttime…it’s all kind of part of this unending menagerie under God’s sight, right? We’re an ever-evolving organism.”
And Indy is growing
My brothers are calling
The Rabbits are chasing
Ricciardo is racing
And I’m making a living
And God is forgiving
As Angel in Realtime comes to its natural conclusion, I’m left feeling almost sad. The album is so expansive in its storytelling, and it covers so much ground. It feels like finishing a good book. You can see how all the songs are connected, and how Le’aupepe has carefully weaved all of these songs, their meanings, and backstories into a tapestry you can only really see fully if you step back. I recommend listening to Angel in Realtime in chronological order. Follow Le’aupepe as he guides you through the last 4 years of his life and explores his own emotions and identity. Maybe listen to it in chunks, since Le’aupepe’s art is big and his vision is most likely even bigger. It’s not perfect; I doubt anyone can construct a truly perfect album, for it can be a little too hard to swallow. But, Angel in Realtime is panoramic, personal, and passionate. I’m not sure if I’ll ever find an album that feels like this one ever again. David Le’aupepe and Gang of Youths have crafted an album with a unique identity in its emotional heart and layered sound. Angel in Realtime is a towering monument to a larger-than-life man, capturing the core of the most crucial realities of life itself.