On a winter night four years ago, David Le’aupepe was on the tail end of a bender when he staggered onto the road. The 22-year-old Australian singer’s marriage was dissolving, and as each day passed, drunker and dizzier than the last, he felt increasingly numb.
The remedy, he believed, was to step in front of a car and end his life.
Le’aupepe was stumbling outside his parent's home when Paul Harris called. Harris, the A&R rep for Le’aupepe's band Gang of Youths, told Le’aupepe he could kill himself, but he had to wait until Harris arrived.
Somehow, Le’aupepe agreed and, before the police arrived, before his stomach was pumped, and before he checked into rehab, he sat beneath a magnolia tree his father had planted in their yard.
When he was sober again, Le’aupepe reflected on the near-fatal night and the moment he spent sitting beneath the tree. He turned to music for catharsis, writing a song about the evening called "Magnolia."
"Magnolia" was the second single for Gang of Youths' 2015 debut, The Positions.
The Australian band boasted an Irish rock sound, pairing early U2’s rebellious fervor with a pub band's rambunctiousness.
But beneath the reverbed guitars and pounding drums laid the chronicle of a crisis. Le’aupepe laments his wife's terminal cancer diagnosis, their divorce, and the aching void it formed.
It's the kind of void we try to bridge with poisons, praying they'll ease the pain, not realizing how foolish that is until we lose our grip and plummet into the chasm.
Le’aupepe is one of the lucky ones. He lived.
The old saying tells us there’s calm before a storm. But if you can survive the storm you'll reach a calm on the other side, too.
When we're struck by tragedy we weather it as best we can. Afterwards, we're stuck in a moment between destruction and recovery, a desperate search for familiarity in the shambles of what was.
Emotional scars never completely close up and heal. Hurt lingers, reappearing when we're alone or close our eyes to sleep.
That’s why the most critical moment of a tragedy is the calm after the storm. We struggle to restore normalcy because we have to redefine what normal means. Nothing can ever be like it was before, despite our stubborn insistence it will be.
Gang of Youth’s sophomore album, "Go Farther in Lightness" lives in this calm, transitioning from conflict to resolution.
It’s a musical transition for Le’aupepe, too, from a raw and primal sound to one that's harnessed and polished. The band's energy’s still thrives, but it's channeled gracefully.
The songwriting has matured too. Writing has always been Le’aupepe’s strength, but he's reached an extraordinary level where his words sound less like lyrics and more like literature. Take the introduction to the album, "Fear and Loathing," which opens with Le’aupepe crooning over a wistful piano melody:
The Springsteenian beginning flips to a frenetic anthem zooming forward with ringing guitars and galloping drums. Nostalgia melts into anxiety as Le’aupepe turns to the future, lamenting how difficult it feels to move on.
Trauma makes the past painful and the future uninhabitable. If life harms us once, we fear it’ll harm us again. So we isolate ourselves, because it’s safer to burrow than to re-engage with a world that’s hurt us.
Le’aupepe admits he can’t fully commit himself to love or joy or happiness, but he wants to.
The most profound moments of clarity occur after the most dire of crises. But it’s not immediate, and Le’aupepe struggles to find peace.
As there’s newfound wisdom in the band's lyrics, there’s also an evolution in their sound. The next six tracks are eclectic:
A blistering, drum and bass paced track with squealing guitars.
An anarchic rock anthem reminiscent of their first album.
A dazed, hypnotic ballad.
A stringed interlude Le’aupepe composed.
An epic about our desires manifesting in our dreams.
A melody tracked over natural sound from a restaurant.
Gang of Youths' debut felt like a rock record through and through. But this effort experiments with genres, feelings, and moods.
“We are post-genre,” Le’aupepe told The Daily Telegraph in August. “People are less concerned about gravitating to a scene or style of music and more towards how it makes them feel and whether you believe what it is saying.”
You can't help but ache with Le’aupepe when, in the middle of the album, he delves into meditations on suicide, his failed marriage, and a close friend's miscarriage.
Dwelling on the past leads to misery, but thoughtfully reflecting on it helps us move forward with closure. The middle of the album is Le’aupepe tracing his scars, remembering how he got them, and using them to learn how to go forward.
The album’s final third charts the path ahead.
The final five-track run from “The Heart Is A Muscle” to “Say Yes to Life” is one of the most phenomenal stretches of tracks you'll hear this year. It's empowering as hell, too, harnessing music's power to uplife and inspire.
"Go Farther In Lightness" references philosophy throughout, and here it addresses the most philosophical question of them all: What is a good life, and how can we achieve it?
Le’aupepe provides his own thoughts in this last section.
The Heart is a Muscle
If our hearts are muscles, Le'aupepe says, then we can practice love and compassion to make them stronger when we feel weak.
"I will not spend the years depleted of my willingness to try. It won’t hurt this way forever, it ain’t worth the overtime. I’m not looking for redemption, nor some shallow kind of bliss. Lay me down and kiss me deeply. Show me everything I missed."
The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows
On our worst days we question whether life has any meaning at all. Instead of viewing life as pointless, think of it as a blank slate onto which we can fill in our own significance.
"There’s a warmth in the eyes, and a clearness of thought, when the deepest of sighs and the frankest of shadows are gone."
Our Time is Short
When you are close to dying, you start to realize how brief life is. We should spend our time living and relishing.
"It’s weird and unnerving, forsaking my old life now, because this is a burden I can’t seem to do without. When time is rotten, we soldier on."
Say Yes to Life
When you're knocked flat, don’t cower and wallow in self pity. Persevere ahead with more ferocity than before.
"Say yes to sun, say yes to pain. Say yes to sticking with a city through a thousand days of rain. Say yes to grace, say no to spite. Say yes to this, say yes to you, say yes to me, say yes to love. Say yes to life."
The album is a rallying cry for the broken, a pep talk for the lost, and a reassuring hand on the most sunken shoulders.
It's optimistic but not naïve. Le’aupepe details the depths of darkness before showing us light. Of all his lyrics, this could be the most meaningful:
"I used to want to be important. Now I just want to be alive, and without fear. You've got to persevere."
When the storm's turmoil arrives, it shatters all vanities and egos. Desires for fame and success are superseded by the realization that life and health and family are more important. Only then can you go forward into lightness.