Doom Days, Bastille’s grippingly confident third album, is a record for turbulent times, finding redemption through human connection in an era when people are increasingly divided and isolated by technology and politics. Made by Dan Smith with bandmates Kyle Simmons, Will Farquarson and Chris ‘Woody’ Wood, and their regular producer Mark Crew, it sees Bastille stretch out and open up like never before.
When Bastille’s single Pompeii became a record-breaking, multi-platinum global hit in 2013, Dan struggled to find his place. “You write songs in your bedroom, then you’re suddenly in a band that people know,” he says. Seeing himself primarily as a songwriter and record producer rather than a pop star, Dan sometimes felt like an imposter. Despite fronting one of the biggest bands to emerge from the UK in the last decade, he couldn’t shake the feeling that Bastille’s success was temporary and that he was just passing through.
That changed around the time of 2016’s critically acclaimed Wild World, which wrestled with the emotional consequences of a period of intense political upheaval, as Bastille embraced a series of new opportunities. They shook up their live set with an orchestra and gospel choir on their audacious ReOrchestrated Tour and released the fourth instalment in their freewheeling mixtape series, Other People’s Heartache. Best Laid Plans, Dan’s record label with Mark Crew, struck gold with Rag’n’Bone Man. P!nk invited Dan to perform a duet during her Lifetime Achievement set at this year’s Brits Awards.
Dan also became a prolific collaborator. He and Mark co-wrote and produced Tears for Fears’ comeback single, I Love You but I’m Lost, while I Know You, his Top 5 single with Craig David, led to unexpected appearances on Christmas Top of the Pops and Strictly Come Dancing. Another experiment in pop songwriting (“an interesting learning curve”) resulted in the colossal Marshmello collaboration Happier, which they performed in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Then there was World Gone Mad, the song Bastille contributed to the Netflix movie Bright, which found the band filming a video in Los Angeles, surrounded by explosions, horses, overturned cars and Will Smith. “As a band who have always written and produced everything ourselves” says Dan, “we’ve had a lot of fun venturing into these totally different spaces.”
This chain of surreal and surprising developments has helped Bastille to relax and enjoy themselves. “We never knew where we’d end up but we’re really happy with where we are, excited by the weird niche we seem to have carved out for ourselves,” says Dan. It was finally time to leave Bastille’s grotty, windowless studio in south London and build a new one better suited to a band that plans to be around for a while. One Eyed Jack’s, named after their beloved Twin Peaks, is where Bastille recorded most of Doom Days during 2018. Living and working together on the album was the first time this hard-touring band had stayed in one place in five years.
Doom Days is partly a reaction to the panic and unease of Wild World. Dan remembers performing at Germany’s Rock am Ring festival in June 2017, the day after it was evacuated by a bomb threat. “Everything behind us on the screen was paranoid news media and Trumpian politics,” he says. “Although we were really proud of the show we’d put together, we couldn’t help wondering whether it was our responsibility to hold up a mirror to those things or if our live shows should be a chance to escape them. It’s complicated.”
This instinct to temporarily shut off is at the heart of Doom Days, which tracks the course of one night, from the electric anticipation of Quarter Past Midnight to the dawn chorus of Joy. It’s not quite a narrative concept album but the tight thematic arc (each track is time-stamped on the album artwork) enabled Dan to explore ideas of experience and escape on both a micro and macro scale. “The compressed timeframe is an interesting setting to explore wider themes” he says. “We love to offset a big statement with more immediate, urgent thoughts and events.”
Quarter Past Midnight captures that point in the night when the sensible people have gone home and those who remain are looking for something (or someone), or perhaps running away from something (or someone). The key line (and the name of their recent tour) is “Still avoiding tomorrow.” “A city at night is a place flipped on its head,” Dan says. “You say, do, drink and take things you maybe wouldn’t in the daytime. People hook up, break up and say stupid things, as well as honest things.”
The first half of the album is therefore about escapism, and the things people are trying to escape. The euphoric Million Pieces, which makes anxiety sound like euphoria, stems from an incident at a party when Dan was trying to enjoy himself while someone insisted on buttonholing him about politics. “It’s incredibly important but please can we leave it till tomorrow?” he remembers thinking. “Every time I think about it, it crushes me.”
Doom Days pivots on the title track, which confronts those crushing issues head-on. “I was thinking about our phone addiction,” Dan says. “How mad it is to always be holding this thing that’s a rolling, scrolling window into the wonders and horrors of the world. It keeps us in constant contact with total strangers and the people we love, which is both super intimate and totally isolating at the same time. It can be confusing and overwhelming but also brilliant. Originally there were 50 verses for the song because there’s no end to the list of things you might want to escape. All the things we took for granted feel very different now.”
After that psychic purge, the album becomes less manic and more celebratory of the personal connections that make life bearable, whether it’s close friends (4AM) or a casual hook-up (Another Place). The infectious, galloping breakbeat of Nocturnal Creatures, like the kinetic Million Pieces, is Bastille’s tribute to the 1990s, a less troubled decade that Dan is young enough to mythologise. “It’s a dance record but on our terms,” he says. “I’ve called it an apocalyptic party record but a party for us is all-nighters with your mates, not popping bottles in the club. It’s very British: rough around the edges.” The sampled voice at the end of Nocturnal Creatures, talking poignantly about freedom and excess, is Igor Grigoriev, one of the pioneers of Russia’s 1990s rave scene.
An album that starts in the middle of an Uber ride through the city streets ends on the kitchen floor. In the healing, uplifting Joy, the demons of hangover angst are dispelled by a phone call from someone special. “That glimmer of hope at the end of the album says everything,” says Dan. “The smallest human gesture can pull you back from the brink.”
Doom Days bustles with energy and ideas. Its diverse sound, taking in gospel, house music, R&B and folk, coalesces into a record which “messes with people’s expectations of what Bastille are and what we want to be,” says Dan. The use of additional vocalists, including Best Laid Plans signings The Dawn of May and Kianja, and the gospel singers from the ReOrchestrated tour, gives Doom Days some of the generous, collaborative ethos of Bastille’s mixtape series. Dan’s lyrical references to books (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Picture of Dorian Gray, A Clockwork Orange), films (Groundhog Day, The Matrix) and songs (Frank Ocean, The Streets, Joy Division, Underworld) form a kind of running conversation with his favourite chroniclers of anxiety, morality, hedonism and redemption. “We enjoy the stealthy way that we’re able to talk about things: the freedom to make a serious point in a light way, so you can take what you want from it,” says Dan. “Given how the number of people saying extreme, divisive things has increased so vastly in recent years, if you have something positive to say, then it’s important to say it.”
Bastille’s newfound confidence can be heard in every second of Doom Days, which is all at once their most personal, their most political and their most danceable record.
The night is closing in. The clock is ticking. LET’S GO.