Irish pop band Picture This has ruled its home country’s charts since 2017, when the quartet released its self-titled triple-platinum debut album. Since success is measured differently in Ireland and the U.S., singer and chief lyricist Ryan Hennessy uses an American equivalent to express the significance of the band’s five-night sold-out stand at Dublin’s 3Arena in March: two Madison Square Gardens.
“To put it into context for you, U2 sold out four nights at 3Arena, and we sold out five nights,” Hennessy said in a phone call from New York, where the band spent a week leading up to the release of the Picture This sophomore record, MDRN LV. “It’s never been done before. It’s unprecedented.”
Hennessy and drummer Jimmy Rainsford started the band just a couple of years earlier, after Rainsford spotted a video of the frontman singing on Facebook, and messaged him with an offer of studio space to professionally record the song together. The two had grown up in the same town southwest of Dublin on the road to Kilkenny, which was enough of an initial connection.
“We met online like every modern relationship nowadays,” Rainsford said. “Quite naturally, we started a band with the song. … It was one of those moments that we just knew straight away that the song was great and that we should start a band even though we didn’t know each other necessarily very well. There was some magic about it all.”
Put simply, had that initial meeting not gone well, Picture This would not exist today. While the two have similar interests outside of the band, their musicals skills lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. Hennessy had little experience playing a guitar or any other instrument, for that matter. He had not recorded or produced before, either. But he knew how to tell a story. Rainsford had played in bands for years, but not written his own songs. Their ability to share interests but have complementing skills was the glue.
“I don’t think we would be talking to you right now [if that first meeting hadn’t gone well],” Hennessy said. “We’re very co-dependent on one another. I think it comes in life as well.”
The duo added guitarist Owen Cardiff and bassist Cliff Deane, who had played with Rainsford since childhood. “We’re all very close friends … it’s not like we’re new to each other,” the drummer said.
Their 2017 debut was a heavily acoustic rocker and propelled Picture This to become the biggest selling act in Ireland in both 2017 and 2018. The band recorded it in Nashville, which may have impacted the overall sound.
But MDRN LV, which the band released in February, takes a hard turn to slickly produced modern pop territory.
While the musical focus remains well-crafted choruses and major-chord sing-alongs, there’s a new neon sheen over each song. “More Than Just Tonight,” “Modern Love” and “One Drink” leave room for slinky synths and horizontal dance floor movement. “Life of the Party” begins with a Vocoder vocal intro before segueing into a funky flow.
While the band didn’t necessarily pick this new direction, Rainsford and Hennessy knew they wanted to expand their sound and didn’t want to get pegged as a folk rock band.
The four members didn’t actively look for influences from other acts, but it’s likely that their love for acts like LANY, The 1975, Charlie Puth and Jon Bellion seeped in into their creation process.
“It’s like if anyone will change as they grow up,” Rainsford said. “We are very open to a lot of things and music. … We wanted to make an album of music that we wanted to hear. It was definitely exciting to push out the barriers a little bit.”
Thematically, MDRN LV is a big picture look at the subject matter. The track list is a collection of stories about the many ways in which love can lead in one’s early twenties. A good chunk of them are outwardly depressing or describe awkward scenarios that should doom the relationship they describe.
“One Drink” is the album’s first single and comes with a straightforward video in which Hennessy uses alcohol to numb his heartbreak but sees his ex wherever he goes. “Life of the Party” is about being a depressed wallflower” “I find it hard speaking my mind/ Especially with the people I like.” On “Hurt Nobody,” the reeling protagonist stays with a cheating lover: “Please don’t lie to me no more/ I can’t watch you leave.”
Album closer “Everything or Nothing” is an ice pick to the heart with the protagonist wondering whether he loved a person, or his own fantasy of that person, before concluding “I’m gonna love you ‘til I’m dead.”
Still, the band’s message with the songs is that modern love is something that should pursued and embraced; not that it’s dead on arrival.
“In every song, even in the ones that are anti-love songs, there’s still hope in there,” the frontman said. “Even though you’ve got troubles and tough times, in those times of disagreements and discomfort … it’s always worth it in the end because there’s nothing more important than relationships with people.
“There’s always people talking about modern times being bad for people, and this [album] is embracing that. You know that you’re going to have fights and fallouts with people, and in the end, we’re all human beings. We can always work things out. So there’s a lot of hope within the album about embracing modern love and not being afraid of it.”
“Broken” is perhaps the most relatable song on the entire album with its hardware reset advice: “Plug me out and plug me back in and I’ll start working.” That was the last song Picture This wrote and recorded for MDRN LV. The album was finished when Hennessy played Rainsford a new demo and the drummer decided the song was a hit.
“I just liked the idea of reducing myself to a commodity within the song in order to get my feelings across,” Hennessy said. “We are very good at fixing physical things and objects in life and this song is asking why we’re not so good at fixing people.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.