“What is going on with me?” It's pretty much the first sentence that Dana Margolin utters on Every Bad, the album with which Brighton indie quartet Porridge Radio are currently garnering praise. It is an album full of nuances, on which Margolin manifests herself as one of the bravest songwriters of the moment. She dares to contradict herself and realizes that questions have value even if the answer is still missing.
Porridge Radio were not always the band they are today. The group have their origins in the bedroom of singer and guitarist Dana Margolin. In 2012 – while studying at the University of Sussex in Brighton – she already started releasing solo material under the current moniker. A handful of demo collections Margolin made in those early days can still be found on Bandcamp, from misery radio (2015) to bad breath (2017). Porridge Radio are now a four piece, with Maddie Ryall on guitar, Georgie Scott on keys, and Sam Yardley on drums. They are a close-knit group, but there is no doubt that the spiritual mother of the project is still its driving force. It’s Margolin's voice and especially her lyrics that ensure that Every Bad is one of the most fascinating albums of the year.
Read Margolin's lyrics and it's like you’re taking a peek at her diary. It’s not without reason that she describes herself as a self-righteous writer. She does not aim for graceful sentences or far-fetched metaphors, but simply writes down her thoughts the way she thinks them. Her lyrics don't feel so much like a monologue as much as an internal dialogue. When Margolin asks questions ("How do I say no without sounding like a little bitch?", for example), she doesn't so much ask others for wise advice. She’s asking herself. This writing method means that Margolin sometimes jumps from one topic to the next and that her lyrics are often full of contradictions. She does not see emotions as a goal or subject in themselves, but rather investigates the – often frustrating – situations that arise when emotions change or are not easy to interpret. “Thank you for leaving me, thank you for making me happy”, she sings together with her bandmates in the climax of 'Born Confused', the opener that sets the tone for Every Bad in both form and content. Moments later, she ends the restless 'Don't Ask Me Twice' with an elated realization: "Oh, I don't know what I want, but I know what I want." They are two opposites that can apparently never apply at the same time, but in Margolin's world they are united as if they were never meant to be apart. Throughout the record, the singer acknowledges that feelings and thoughts are more often than not ambiguous at the very least. That they can not only go from black to white in the blink of an eye, but can also be black, white and all shades of gray in between at the same time. That Every Bad not only consists of evil and worse, but also of everything in between.
Margolin emphasizes this on Every Bad by using her lyrics as fiery mantras. In almost every song on the record, by repeating her sentences like sinister spells, she builds up to climaxes that are grand but never pathetic. In these moments, Margolin's simplest and apparently least striking sentences leave a mark. “I go inside the sea sometimes”, she muses in Circling, the gently swinging ballad inspired by the Brighton coastline.
Well, muses… All those repetitions actually enable Margolin to give each rendition of a sentence a different emotional layer. In the hauntingly intense ‘Sweet’, after describing herself as a nervous wreck with childish tendencies, she swears: “I'm charming, I'm sweet, she will love me when she meets me”, cautiously at first, but then more and more firmly. In the lingering 'Pop Song', her demand for safety is sometimes pleading, other times a lot more compelling. And in the aforementioned 'Circling' she mumbles again and again: “I'm doing well, I'm doing fine, we're all okay, all of the time”, leaving it up to the listener whether she's telling the truth, trying to convince herself or just making an ironic comment on her own misery.
In 'Give/Take' and 'Lilac' she even emphasizes single words like “want”, “kind” and “stuck”, which are repeated with all kinds of intonations, with meanings floating to the surface in the second, third and fourth repetitions that did not appear to be present in the first uttering of the word. In the end, the words almost lose their meaning and only retain their meaning because of the way Margolin puts them across her lips.
On Every Bad, Margolin doesn't necessarily sound like a confident singer, but she does sound like a self-confident woman who dares to expose herself completely and who dares to stand behind her own doubts. One minute she's fierce, the next she's despairing. She is reminiscent of established icons like PJ Harvey, Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O and the late Dolores O'Riordan of The Cranberries, as well as modern greats like Savages' Jehnny Beth and Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief. Like her, Margolin refuses to commit to one emotional modus operandi: she realizes that screaming can sometimes be more intimate than whispering, and that whispering can in turn be more painful than screaming. It's crystal clear that the rest of Porridge Radio understands that too. The band dwells within the DIY punk universe, but with playful ease alternates stoic passages with contrarian guitar explosions, and manages to sound just as enraptured in rippling moments as in awe-inspiring choruses.
In short, both lyrically and musically, there is no common thread on Every Bad to which the listener can cling. Precisely that - you can feel it coming - is what unites and gives life to all the songs on the album. On Every Bad, Porridge Radio leave plenty of room for nuance and uncertainty. The band don’t pretend to have a monopoly on the truth, but don’t efface themselves either. It is a refreshing approach in 2020, when the pressure is oftentimes high to proclaim your own opinion as truth.
Yet there is one moment when Margolin shakes off all self-doubt and climbs the barricades. When she repeats the main sentence of the touching apotheosis 'Lilac', the emotion does not switch between uncertain, ironic and serious. No, in that song the singer just becomes more determined with every line. “I don't want to get bitter”, she preaches. “I want us to get better. I want us to be kinder, to ourselves and to each other.” It's a mission that Dana Margolin obviously doesn't always accomplish on Every Bad. Nothing human is alien to her in that regard. But she does pursue the dream with everything she has.