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Amber Run Album Review: We Can Never Truly Understand ‘How To Be Human’

4 Stars

Amber Run released 'How To Be Human' on Feb. 24
Amber Run released 'How To Be Human' on Feb. 24 By Courtesy of Amber Run / RCA Records / Sony Music Entertainment
By Larissa G. Barth, Crimson Staff Writer

“And in the dark I’ll be your eyes,” sings British indie rock band Amber Run on “Hurt,” the second track of “How To Be Human,” released on Feb. 24. With vulnerable piano ballads and upbeat, dreamy pop-rock tracks alongside their classic cinematic alt-rock sound, the album candidly explores the human experience in all its facets. Through Amber Run’s eyes, the listener experiences the bittersweet and anything but linear journey of losing and finding, laughing and crying, loving and longing, as they suggest that life is so beautiful because we “have never truly understood / how to be human.”

“Hurt,” the album’s second track, showcases Amber Run’s lyricism, the brilliance of which often lies in its ambiguity.

“Don't think that there's a medicine / For what is going 'round / Fight it with your vitamins / I've heard it knocks you out / And it goes 'round and 'round and 'round and 'round / Until it's yours.”

The song never tells us what is “going ‘round,” but the resulting “hurt” seems to be an inevitable part of the human experience. The water metaphor emphasized through reverb keyboard instrumentals take the listener underwater. The repetition of “‘round and ‘round and ‘round and ‘round,” which is picked up in the bridge with the addition of background vocals, portrays a sonic maelstrom of hurt that pulls the listener in. After a small pause, the song plunges into depths in the chorus, utilizing bass, low vocals, and heavy percussion, yet getting to the depth of it all has interestingly become the most hopeful part of the song: “When the water pulls you under / I'll wrap my arms around you / I'll hold you while you cry / And in the dark I'll be your eyes.” In addition to this being a heart-warming message to their fans, Amber Run have managed to masterfully combine both lyrics and sonics to show that even though painful experiences have the potential to drown you, getting to the depth of a problem can also illuminate who you are and who you want to be.

The album then ventures into the realm of love with “I Hope It’s Not Like This Forever,” an infectious joy of a song with an addictive melody. Describing the early stages of infatuation, of meeting someone at a Friday night dance party and hoping that you’ll get to know them better, this song depicts its setting so well that the listener can dance along to the keyboard instrumental. Yet in concordance with the rest of the album, the song contains a bittersweet undercurrent, particularly in one of the album’s most thought-provoking lines: “I can't be the only one / Unsatisfied and wanting more / Than playing understudy / In my own dark comedy.” Through these lyrics, Amber Run touch on the feeling of estrangement from one’s own life, as if somebody else was living it. Seen in this context, falling in love is certainly one of those feelings that make you feel most alive and least like you are “playing understudy.”

The counterpart to this song about new love is “The Last Dance,” a tender, raw ballad about wanting to be someone’s life partner: “Could I have the last dance?” lead vocalist Joe Keogh asks, again and again, with stunning vulnerability. It is not only one of the finest songs Amber Run has produced, but Keogh also delivers one of his strongest vocal performances in a slow burn intensification of the soaring melodic line.

“Funeral,” a somber piano ballad filled with beautiful melodic lines and disorienting reverb, is the album’s darkest song. “Gone are the young before they're old / Echoing / The world they're in / Where flying looks a lot like falling,” Keogh sings, before he pleads “No, not another funeral” over and over in the chorus. This song certainly speaks to losing a loved one, yet there seems to be more to it: “What a way to live / What a state we're in / Where it's a mistake to show emotion,” refers to our society which often makes us repress “negative” emotions like sadness or anger, thereby taking us further away from ourselves. Perhaps “Funeral” is about the death of certain parts within us, a mourning of one’s lost childhood: “I wish I hadn’t let you go.”

The life-death metaphor continues in “Honeylight,” now in the sphere of light-darkness. After a disillusioned opening accompanied by spare, nostalgic guitar strokes — “There’s nothing to it / You just exist / Then you die” — “Honeylight” quickly turns into one of the album’s most inspirational songs, comparing life to the golden hour before sunrise or sunset. The tempo picks up and playful guitar and piano instrumentals create a warm and sweet atmosphere as Keogh sings, “I would like to bathe in honey / In honeylight.” Life is so precious because we “just exist, then die,” its brevity heightens all our experiences. Just like the golden hour before it gets dark, Amber Run create pure magic and transform a disenchanted realization into genuine enchantment with life.

Encapsulating the album, the title song depicts the strange, paradoxical experience of being human through lyrics like “To have never truly understood / How to be human,”and “To never truly know your mind / Is how to be human.” In their most holistic and mature approach to the existential search of meaning yet, Amber Run conclude that though we may learn and search all we want, to “truly” understand might simply be out of reach. At least, there is certainly not any one answer — instead, they depict the full range of life’s unpredictable currents — there’s hurt and joy, there’s love and death and setbacks — and remind us that we would do well in swimming with, not against them.

—Staff writer Larissa G. Barth can be reached at

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