Shoegazing gets a lick of industrial paint on Sunnbrella’s ‘Heartworn’.

The woeful, angst-heaving effigy of Slowdive is re-cast in rave gear to be found somewhere off the M25.

Photo: Zak Watson | Words: Grace Marshall

London’s urban daydreamer David Zbirka returns with Sunnbrella’s first full length album, co-produced by Patrick James Fitzroy (PVA, Sorry). Zbirka has been worshipping in the church of shoegaze since 2018 debut ‘Feelin’ Invisible’, which was followed up by a clutch of singles and an EP that served his band well at festivals like Standon Calling and Metronome. ‘Heartworn’ is a lockdown project several years in the making, written and recorded in parallel with those early ventures.

Sunnbrella is a project we might describe as a fuzzy libation to classic early 90s acts like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine. It is also a treat for fans of contemporary nu gaze acts bdrmm and hatchie.  If ‘Heartworn’ is a prayer, though, it is a gleeful and irreverent one. Euphoric distortion and windswept vocal harmonies collide as if in slow motion with determined dance rhythms straight out of the warehouse. It is an enticing and intuitive way forward for a genre that was originally teased for being populated by bands that stood dead still on stage.

‘Fever Dream’ makes the association explicit with tongue-in-cheek lyrics that are straight out of a noughties charts banger: “Turn it up, turn it up, let me dance all night… no I’m not going home”. Here, however, these pop nothings are cast into vertigo-inducing free-fall over classic distorted textures. The inspiration of 90s production techniques comes through particularly strongly in ‘Defend Urself’. The piece is a dysphoric party you might actually get lost in, symphonic in the scale and layering of its production, with all outputs giving ‘loud’.  It might be the lead single ‘Polyester’ that is most self-assured in this dream-rave combination. Its fuzzy guitar hook and squelchy acid house beat explain the original title, ‘Dancefloor Daydreams’. Zbirka recalls, “I wanted to get more dance rhythms into the dream-pop/indie/shoegaze sound that I was working with up until that point, and put more of an emphasis on beats, even with the more traditional songs”.

In the glowing shoegaze tradition, one struggles to hear all the consonants necessary to determine the particulars of Zbirka’s unpretentious lyrics. Plosives and fricatives are irrelevant in the Sunnbrella universe and that’s ok, especially when vocals plunge into sunny and indistinct chorales, like those of ‘Heartworn’ and ‘Ivy League’. Zbirka implies that mishearing the lyrics might not be the end of the world: “I usually don’t write words with a story in mind and things tend to fall into place gradually and subconsciously from scraps of poetry and hazy memories, so I didn’t quite know what the story of the album was until it was finished”. With a little enthusiasm, it is possible to discern a unifying thread in the imagery and vocabulary of ‘Heartworn’, based around the push-and-pull of uncertainty and revelation. The hook on ‘Polyester’ is particularly telling: ‘I still remember what you said / I still don’t know what it was supposed to mean’ 

Zbirka’s comments on ‘Polyester’ foreground this elusive state between realisation and aporia: “The song is about lying to yourself and eventually realizing that you had it all wrong…  There’s a sense of nonchalance to the delivery that gives it closure, like you’re looking back at a disappointing experience with some distance and clarity. I wrote [it] when I was in the midst of the situation but it’s almost like my future self was already talking to me through the song… Lyrically, I think the album explores feelings of loneliness and yearning but at the same time, there are moments of hope and optimism”.

‘Heartworn’ is an album that offers both comfort and innovation, without contriving to reinvent the wheel. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… maybe just add a drum machine?