The Drums ‘Abysmal Thoughts’ – Review

24 Jun

Right from the beginning Jony Pierce has been adjusting to loss. On ‘submarine’ from their debut e.p, he lamented ‘I did not want to let you go but I knew that I had to.’ As time has gone on, this has become a self fulfilling prophecy. The Drums are like a Russian doll – they’re getting smaller with each new reveal. Initially a four piece, they shed their first member after inter-band squabbles whilst promoting their debut album. The trio become a duo after second record ‘Portamento’. Eventually, at some point last year, founding member Jacob Graham informed frontman Jonny Pierce that he wanted to peruse projects away from the group. Which is where we’re at now. Essentially The Drums is a solo project in everything but name.

This is a shame because it symbolises the end of something. Just as Brexit symbolised a dent in a optimistic post-war dream – representing a sense of mistrust and disillusionment that felt irrevocable – The gradual break up of The Drums undoes a modern version of the Pop dream. In 2009 the group represented the pop ideal; four handsome boys, guitars in hand, writing glorious pop songs about falling in love and having your heart broken. Their outfits referenced Americana and preppy disregard, their songs were the exact half way point between The Supremes and The Smiths. They filtered their sentiments through images of French new wave cinema and Postcard record motifs. Images of surfing, Submarines and sad summers blended with twanging bass lines and frantic rhythms. ‘Abysmal Thoughts’ announces that this wonderful embodiment of pop was always something of a sham. Jonny now claims to have written, recorded and produced most of the band’s material from the beginning. They were never really a band at all – not as such. The drama had been present, and hidden, since the start. The truth is out. The dream has corroded in to reality. Optimism has turned sour.

But ironically, rather than turning in to the disillusioned downer it had every right to be, Jonny embraces reality on ‘Abysmal Thoughts’ and has made a philosophically sophisticated, imaginative and honest record that stands shoulder to shoulder with The Drums earlier work. He confronts hard truths and an unloving world that won’t accept him for who he is. He embraces the implicit loss – of band members, of a partner – and indulges his sadness. He also tackles his complicity in these issues. For the first time he speaks as someone who has wronged as much as been wronged. There is a sense of purpose that was lacking from their last album, a sense of something to strive for. The renewed passion and commitment leads to some of the best melodies Pierece has written in years. You can really hear that he believes in what he sings. Whilst there’s nothing on here as catchy as ‘Best Friend’, ‘Lets Go Surfing’ or ‘Book of Stories’, all of these songs have memorable choruses and fizzy hooks.

Another irony is that the new found freedom has pushed Pierce further back in to his musical comfort zone. Jacob Graham’s deeper involvement on ‘Encyclopaedia’ led to some awkward experimentation and uncomfortable posturing. His departure has allowed Pierce to double down on his initial mandate of razor sharp hooks cut as simply, and vulnerably, as possible. But without having to run his ideas by a committee or represent other people, Pierce has been able to tweak the formula’s just so – this time to his own tastes. So we get unexpected delights like the jazzy saxophone break on ‘Are You Fucked’, the drum and bass inspired effects on ‘Your Tenderness’ and the trippy rhythms on ‘Heart Basel’. Brilliantly, despite these new elements, it never sounds like anyone other than The Drums.

On ‘Enyclopedia’ his tone was sometimes resentful and angry. Bitter songs like ‘Face of God’, ‘Magic Mountain’ and ‘Let Me’ were hugely unlikeable diatribes that rubbed up awkwardly against the more whimsical pop songs. Nothing here is allowed to be either that bitter or that unrooted in reality. The sense of anger has been ironed out and the fantasy has been popped like a balloon. Pierce has talked about the amount of soul searching that took place before putting pen to paper, and for once you can really believe it. When he tackles his father’s homophobia on ‘Head of the Horse’, he does so in a way that is both subtle and moving. He observes his own failures apologetically on ‘If All We Share’ and evokes sympathy without seeking it; he doesn’t seek to cast blame or draw conclusions either.

Of course, the album is brimming with typical Drums overstatement – ‘I pulled up the carpet in my room and slept on the concrete cos I knew you’ – which will not be to everyone’s taste. But this time the melodrama is cancelled out by a dose of dark humour and gritty realism. It doesn’t always pay off; the scathing ‘Rich Kids’ feels like a petulant attack, no matter how worthy a target, and the title track is four minutes of self pity that feels badly placed as a finale. But even these songs sound jubilant and exciting – the biting lyrics offset by elastic rhythms, springy guitar lines and, in the case of ‘Abysmal Thoughts’, whistles and cowbells.

In a sense the drums were the record industry’s last gasp at creating a buzz band in the image of the strokes. They received all the obvious handouts – the magazine covers, the chat show appearances, blog hype, the awards (named by both Pitchfork and NME as the best new band of 2009), but in the end this didn’t translate in to sales. Their debut peaked at 14, and everything since has failed to scrape the top 40. Their best known song, ‘Let’s Go Surfing’, is mostly recognised as the soundtrack to numerous adverts. And yet The Drums still have lasting appeal. They will appear in fairly big font on many festival line up posters this summer and ‘Abysmal Thoughts’ will receive significant attention in the music press. To many people who still believe in a lasting idea of pop music and all it represents, The Drums remain something precious to hold on to. Beaten, battered, bruised and three members down, they are still sounding as good as ever. Times have changed but The Drums, and the pop values they represent, aren’t going anywhere.

8.5/10

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