Ambient dream-pop collective Cigarettes After Sex were formed almost accidentally in 2008 by songwriter and frontman Greg Gonzalez. While living in El Paso, Texas, Gonzalez was experimenting with capturing the spacious sounds of recording songs in a four-story stairwell at the University of Texas. These dreamy songs would make up the first Cigarettes After Sex EP, I., which would see release in 2012. After relocating to Brooklyn, Gonzalez continued work on the band, enlisting the help of a loose cast of collaborators, the result of which appeared mostly in the form of singles, EPs, and immensely popular YouTube clips. One of their most notable tracks was a 2015 reworking of REO Speedwagon‘s ‘Keep on Loving You‘. Following a swell of online attention, the self-titled album finally arrived earlier this year, almost a decade after the band’s creation.
Sultry shoe-gazers Cigarettes After Sex took to the stage at the O2 Ritz last night to play a catalogue of modern love songs set to downbeat dream pop to a keen, but docile Manchester audience. Cigarettes After Sex gigs are a little different to other gigs – there’s no singing along, no jumping about, and it’s mostly full of loved up couples swaying together as if they’re the only people in the room. It’s sickeningly sweet. The four-piece glide onto the stage, and the beautiful melodies and classy songwriting of Young & Dumb shine through the billowing smoke that fills the room. I’m fully convinced that Cigarettes After Sex are the only band that could make the lyric ‘I know full well that you are the patron saint of sucking cock’ sound like the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard. The theme of sexual encounters as fodder for quiet introspection continues throughout a lot of their material, but it’s delivered in such a nonchalant way that it avoids sounding crass, or excessively corny.
Their set is played to a cinematic backdrop of black and white clips displayed on a projector screen – a new addition to their sets and it works beautifully. The four-piece play delicately, and Greg Gonzalez occasionally murmurs something quietly between songs. His androgynous voice is framed by bass and drums, before his echoey guitar twangs or Phillip Tubbs’ keyboard add sprinklings of beautiful melody. Gonzalez used to manage an arthouse cinema, and the influence lingers in the minimal lighting, and the moody backdrops of falling snow, and voyeuristically slow-motion closeups of arty women.
Alt-rock ballad simply titled K. evokes the first vocal reaction of the night from the crowd. A track that chronicles Greg Gonzalez’s infatuation with a girl named Kristen, and pinpoints the very moment that their relationship shifts from strictly casual to something more substantial. ‘We had made love earlier that day, with no strings attached, but I could tell that something had changed,’ Gonzalez croons in a voice close to a whisper. Cigarettes After Sex have a much adored catalogue of love songs, each tempered with a millennial ennui that gives the songs an extra layer of relevance in 2017. Instead of relying on lovey-dovey lyrics to tell stories of budding relationships, each song is set to a backdrop of ultra-downbeat dream pop, with somber moods leaking into fleeting vignettes of sexy iPhone videos and bittersweet hookups, K. is the perfect example of exactly that.
The familiar, soothing bass of Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby kicks in, resulting in the loudest reaction from the crowd all night, setting its place in stone as a firm fan favourite. The room began to quietly whisper along to the tender lyrics for the first time all evening, gently swaying together as one. The final track of the night is the ethereal Apocalypse, echoes of ‘You’ve been locked in here forever and you just can’t say goodbye’ providing the perfect finale to a magical set. Cigarettes After Sex have an uncanny, remarkable ability to have an entire room utterly mesmerised, and evoke intense emotional reactions from nothing but delicate, sighing gentleness. Something they do so with such impressive ease. They’re sensational.
Cigarettes After Sex create more than just love songs, they’re intricate explorations of how and why we fall in and out of love. Nostalgia for lost love and romance is universal, so it is easy to see why so many find solace in Cigarettes After Sex.