The Drums ‘Encyclepdia’ – Review

11 Oct

The Drums were the last meaningful musical discovery of my teenage years, which sounds ridiculous, so let me try to explain (justify) that position. They came at a time when I was devouring everything from trip-hop to doo-wop to death metal to dub-step. The internet helped me to in indulge in everything that took my fancy but ultimately I think I got bored with the web of noise. So I started to track back. I started to think about what lay at the centre of the music that I LOVED. Really loved. What songs did I honestly want to listen to? What drew me to certain melodies and lyrics? Then I heard The Drums, and they seemed to boil down all the things I had been thinking about. They WERE everything I liked in one neat package. In a way The Drums helped me understand myself, and my taste, much more clearly. They were vital not so much for their songs (which were nonetheless often heavenly) but for their spirit and manifesto. “It‘s just pop music. It‘s three minutes, it‘s a great chorus…cut away all the fat and just be super vulnerable.” They reminded me that essentially I was, and still am, drawn to simple, catchy, romantic, melodic pop songs. All the other embellishments are unnecessary and often just get in the way. They sounded lovesick and idealistic, as I decided pop stars should be. They looked pin-up stylish and seemed destined to call in a new era of guitar pop in the way The Strokes had done half a decade before them.

Only the revolution never came. It couldn’t, by that point the internet had made such an idea impossible, let alone obsolete. The Drums spoke to me, but not to a mass audience. We could still dream though and The Drums taught me that all the best pop songs are basically dreams anyway. However, It wasn’t long before the dream crumbled. In less than a year they lost a member, and a second would leave soon after. The follow up album, ‘Portamento’, whilst fairly similar stylistically and in terms of quality, felt radically less ambitious and optimistic. The band themselves sounded deflated and let down by everyone and everything; band members, the industry, the music press, religion, the establishment and basically everything other than the music. But even their faith in that seemed to be wavering just slightly. The simple pop songs on the debut were cinematic in vision. They were idealised versions of pop. On ‘Portemento’ the songs came with a heavy dose of realism – and nearly too much cynicism. Their faith in the world was gone, and their faith in the ideal of pop was going the same way.

Their silence in the intervening years has also been telling. They are back as a duo and with almost none of the self mythologizing that made them cover stars in 2009. The photo that adorns the front cover of ‘Encyclopaedia‘ (of them stone-faced, huddled up on a sofa, next to an empty space) is as close as you can get to catching two men with their tails between their legs. ‘Encyclopaedia’ is the musical equivalent of that. It gives up entirely on the manifesto they laid out at the start. The minimalism is replaced by a passive aggressive assault of sounds and ideas. The romantic lyrics are often replaced by bitter attacks on the haters. Short and snappy songs are replaced by long and slow ones where choruses arrive too quickly and are drummed in to you with sheer doggedness many, many times. They sound like a different band – in fact they are literally a different band (two members down and with Johnny “Two Wounded Birds” Aries given a song writing credit on half the songs). As they once sang, The Drums MkII are hard to love.

First single, and opening track, ‘Magic Mountain’ is like a child wired on e-numbers being asked what they did at school today. They fall over themselves in a mad attempt to unload as much information as possible. This is what they’ve learnt since Portamento. Apart from sounding, to my untrained ears at least, out of tune and poorly mixed, the melodic and lyrical content is trite and obtuse. It’s a comeback that announces, ‘we’re back and on our terms’ but it sounds almost defensive, like they’re expecting hostilities. This is a band hardened by experience, a far cry from the enthusiastic and inviting group that wanted to go surfing.

Ahh yes. The surfing song. The song that has hung like an imagined weight around their necks. The song they spent so long trying to ignore then escape and then begrudgingly accept. The song that contains their greatest hook to date and floats on air compared to the heavy, burdened material on ‘Encylopedia.’ Their ‘Creep’, in a backwards kind of way. Nothing here competes with ‘Lets go Surfing’ or any of the other lovably lightweight songs on the debut. Almost every track has an agenda. Almost every track has an argument to make and a point to prove. That makes ‘Encyclopedia’ a lot more hard work than any fan would want it to be.

So the Drums are pretty hard to love on ‘Encyclopedia’, but some of these songs still make it very easy to like them. Hints of heartbreak (still Johnny’s best subject matter by a country mile) are there in the excellent pop songs ’Deep in my Heart’ and ’There is Nothing Left’ two songs inexplicably buried near the end of the album. These two tracks in particular are nice updates on the drums signature sound, proving that experimentalism isn’t inherently bad for the band. This is especially true when bold innovation is mixed with classic hook-writing on ’Kiss me Again’; here, the whoops that spring out of Johnny make him sound like he’s having a good time, almost in spite of himself. He’s rarely this open hearted though.

Whether he’s bashing religion (and as a consequence about half the band’s potential audience) on the cynical and mean spirited ‘Face of God’, or bigots, on the reductive and slightly childish ‘Let me’, The Drums are taking complex ideas and reducing them to petty slogans, which is different to simplifying and demystifying complexity (as they clearly believe they are doing). These are worthy topics for the band to explore – indeed they took on religion convincingly on Portamento’s ‘Book of Revelation’, where Johnny found comfort in an atheistic world view, and used that lack of faith as a foundation to build free love without fear of divine retribution. In contrast ‘Faith of God’ is silly, sarcastic and taunting.

There are however some concessions to fans who still place stock in the idea that pop songs should be catchy and enjoyable, not heavy-handed and bloated. Fans who understand, as they once did, that you can often find great meaning in music that initially appears to be meaningless. The romantic ‘National Park USA’ is OVERLY melodramatic but it sounds pretty and vaguely hopeful. Equally nice is the album closer ‘Wild Geese’, a song written by Jacob, where his layered synths take centre stage. There is a clarity at the album’s end that is rarely found in the preceding forty minutes. The so/so ‘Cant Pretend’ and ‘I hope Time Doesn’t Change Him’ have potential, but are weighed down by chugging rhythms and over-stuffed arrangements. What happened to ‘three minute pop songs’ and ‘cut away all the fat’?

If The Drums had followed their original recipe, ‘Encyclopaedia’ would be a vastly superior album. Sure a bit of trimming and lipo-suction couldn’t help the badly-judged lyrics, or the average choruses that fill some of these songs, but it would certainly make ‘Encyclepdia’ less of a chore to get through. I still believe in The Drums, and the idea of pop they originally championed, but ‘Encyclopaedia’ is a depressingly deflated record; one full of potential that hasn’t been realised. Maybe they have another great record in them, but this isn’t it.

6/10

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