“It’s over now.” Normally these three harrowing words mark the end of something: the end of an era, the close of a traumatic event, or the white flag at the end of a long war. For Darlingside this phrase signifies all of the above, but it doesn’t signify the end of the story. On the contrary, these words open the Cambridge, Massachusetts folk quartet’s latest album Extralife, a concept album set on a post-apocalyptic Earth shortly after the close of the nuclear holocaust. It is on this scorched Earth, where life as we know it ceases and anything that remains becomes itself extra-life, that Darlingside begin their musical journey surveying the wreckage; probing for signs of life and reflecting back on the choices that led to such desolation.
On Extralife, Darlingside create a soundscape that is lush and vibrant, thanks in part to the beautiful melding of acoustic guitar, strings, woodwinds, and subtle electronic drones, each made more ethereal by a healthy dose of reverb. However, while the arrangements are stunning, what really seals the deal are the near constant four part vocal harmonies that could make even Simon and Garfunkel jealous. When combined, these two elements create a feel that is much more Narnia than Mad Max, though there is a noticeable melancholic bent to the otherwise mystical sonic palette. It is at once filled with immediate beauty and distant longing, the kind of album that one can appreciate equally when feeling sad or feeling happy. Armageddon never sounded so beautiful.
Though it would still succeed just on the merits of its immersive atmosphere and catchy melodies, Extralife also manages to be more than just a vibe album. Each song, or at least the discernable majority, starts contextually with the catastrophic nuclear event and becomes a snapshot of a particular experience. When put together the songs on Extralife form a sort of patchwork picture of an apocalyptic future, one where the narrators are aware of the overarching narrative, how this catastrophe arrived and all of the things left in its wake, but the listener is forced to piece together the story and its resulting message from fragments. In the title track we get a picture of the event itself as “Mushroom clouds reset the sky.” A few tracks later Futures flashes back to before the apocalypse with the words of a “Mrs. President” pleading in the chorus, “It’s not ever too late.” This refrain is juxtaposed with that of the next track, here presumably post-apocalypse again, where the narrator’s father urges him “hold your head up high”before the narrator concludes the vignette with “underground the new life thunders up and on.”
Despite predominantly leaning into their world and storytelling, there are several moments that remain poignant with or without their narrative context. Perhaps the most mesmerizing track, Old Friend, shows the narrator reflecting on an old friend who presumably has died. It is lyrically the shortest song on the album, only three stanzas of three lines each, but says all that it needs to say in just one stanza: “Old friend I/ Think of you still sometimes/ Sure as the river bending into the light.” Another theme that jumps beyond the story is the preeminence of history and what it means to find one’s place in it. In Singularitywe see a post-apocalyptic man “taking pictures of cement… for the history books on mother Earth.” On Hold Your Head Up High we once again see emphasis put on the ties between humanity and the need to preserve its likeness: “See that humankind is you/ Like all the rest, down to/ The scratches on the album that you’re singing to.” Darlingside probe at this question much more directly in Rite Hayworth, a song about famous, historical women in the early 20thCentury where the question of how one stands out “in a colorless sea” amounts to how one knows what it means to be loved. It is a fitting question for an album looking back at civilization from desolation, but also a fitting question in real, everyday life.
That is the true strength of Extralife, that the story is more than entertainment or a thought experiment, but as the final track, Best of the Best of Times somewhat reveals, it is very much real in its own right. While the chorus “We’re a long way, long way from the best of the best of times” is a proper reflection of the post-fallout predicament of the narrator, it is also buffered by images of clocks winding down, the world saying farewell, and a closing verse that begins “and I wonder/ whether our days are unnumbered” and ends with the dream of finally waking up to be pulled from a shipwreck “all equal and safe.” Here we find what feels like a real, pertinent warning that perhaps we are already a long way from the best of times in our current world and seemingly closer instead to the full collapse characterized throughout most of the album. This turns us back to the question of history and how humanity’s story will be preserved. It won’t do much good to take pictures of concrete once life is destroyed, but if we learn from our mistakes now then perhaps those who follow us won’t have to see what comes extra-life.