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The 1975 ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ – Review

26 May

31st May 2018 feels like a lifetime ago for a variety of reasons but it was on that day that The 1975 announced their fourth album’s title ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’. July 2019, still a lifetime ago, was when they dropped the lead single and reiterated that the album ‘had to be out’ before they headlined Reading and Leeds festival on August Bank Holiday Weekend. Now, nine months and a further six singles down the line, following two public delays, brexit, and in the midst of a global pandemic, we finally have the album. ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ is a messy, sprawling, inessant, contradictory, brilliant, unapologetic love letter from The 1975 to the 1975. This is either everything you love, or everything you hate, about the best, and most divisive, band of the past decade.

Sometimes bands give you more when what you really need is less. The 1975 are not one of those bands. I mean obviously they give you ‘more’ (‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ features 22 songs) but the ‘more’ has always kind of been the point. ‘Too much’. Often ‘much to much’. If In the past they’ve been able to cohere their various ideas in to something relatively tight, well that was probably more accidental than anything else. ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ is sprawling by design. It’s consciously a buffet. Its much too muchness is a reflection of the way we consume modern media. As a consequence, you will find The 1975’s heaviest songs plotted alongside their most delicate. Their most introspective songs alongside their most goofy. Their most experimental songs alongside their most accessible.

There are various musical threads that weave through the fabric of the record. George has developed into a sophisticated producer, and his forays into British bass music yield some of the album’s most inventive moments. From ‘Frail State of Mind’ and ‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’s anxious, skittering takes on Garage to ‘Shiny Collarbone’s deconstruction of Dancehall and ‘Having No Head’s more obviously indebted homage to Jon Hopkins. A drizzly, late night atmosphere hangs over the album, particularly in these stretches, which compliments Matty’s self conscious introspection.

At the other extreme are a series of gleaming, lovesick guitar songs that ride major chords out of the gloom. ‘You and Me Together Song’ channels late 90s melodic rock to describe both the romance and the realism of being in an adult relationship. ‘We went to winter wonderland and It was shit but we were happy’. It’s one of the least adorned and affected songs they’ve ever produced and it gets you like a lollipop on a hot summer day. ‘Then, Because She Goes’ pulls a similar trick while ‘Roadkill’s sturdier, but no less sugary, take on the genre invokes the highs and lows of life on the road. Here Matty employs a rambling, stream of consciousness style to divulge way more than we needed to know about his ‘tucked up erection’ and the time he ‘pissed myself on a Texan intersection’. It’s not the only song to graphically describe his private bodily functions. The aim, if there is one, seems to be to demystify and deglamorise the rock n roll lifestyle. He is deliberately putting his screw ups and insecurities on show. ‘I never fucked in a car, I was lying’ is how he opens the glorious r&b flecked ‘Nothing Revealed / Everything denied’, skewering the mythic ‘Fucking In a car, shooting heroin’, line from arguably the band’s most iconic song ‘Love it if we Made It’. It’s an overshare, certainly, but reflective of how time and time again Healy positions himself in a candid and unflattering light to lower your defences. The album is ultimately, in part at least, a deconstruction of the rockstar ego. It brushes off any trace of excess or extravagance and hones in on something eminently honest and relatable.

Though the band do bury the lede somewhat. They use the opening two numbers – ‘The 1975’ and ‘People’ – to convey urgent social messages about climate change and political and social disillusionment. But after this the band spend the next eighty minutes looking inward, not outward. ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ feels like an elaboration on the topics first raised on 2016’s ‘I Like it When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It’ (it never gets old writing that). These songs are about feeling too fragile to step outside your house while seeking intimate connections with strangers over the Internet. They’re about falling in love with the wrong person and feeling uncomfortable at parties. About feeling like someone you don’t recognise and, sometimes, not feeling anything at all.

Matty can be pompous and melodramatic. At his worst he gestures at progressive values in a shallow way through a kind of virtue signalling. There’s the careless reference to Pinegrove on ‘The Birthday Party’, for example, and the obscure depiction of a gay Christian’s internal conflict on on ‘JC 2005 God Bless America’ (not to mention opening track ‘The 1975’, which is given over in its entirety to the well meaning but increasingly polarising Greta Thunberg). It’s not that these topics should be out of bounds, rather that he frequently fails to explore them in anything more than a superficial or glib way. But, for his faults, you could never accuse him of lacking integrity. Even in these moments, you can hear him ready to take a pin to his his own ballooning sense of self importance. It’s his sense of humour, as much as his sincerity and self awareness, that ultimately brings him back to Earth.

Better, and more abundant, are the moments of understatement and nuance. ‘Bagsy, Not in the Net’ is, as the title suggests, about a reluctance to do something difficult but necessary for the greater good. Here the lyrics present glimpses of anxiety in action. ‘Try it. Don’t like it. Leaving you here is the thing that I fear so I fight it.’ Similarly, ‘Then Because She Goes’ uses painterly abstractions to convey love’s young blush. ‘You are mine. I’ve been drowning in you. You fracture light again. Beautiful. Please don’t cry. I love you.’ The vocals are processed and flooded below thick guitar strokes which just adds to the sense of sinking. Best of all is ‘Playing on my Mind’ which bridges the gap to the stream of consciousness style of ‘Roadkill’ and ‘The Birthday Party’ with poetic restraint and concision. ‘I won’t buy clothes online cause I get worried about the fit / but that rule don’t apply concerning my relationships…oh these things they have been playing on my mind.’ ‘Too Shy’ (already the band’s biggest and best hit to date) carries this theme through to one end point; a distressed protagonist hunting down free wi-fi late at night so that he can have cyber sex with ‘the girl of your dreams’. It’s funny, it’s smart and it’s irresistible pop music.

I understand why some people call this The 1975’s White Album but that comparison doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. For a start, The Beatles and George Martin meticulously sequenced The White Album so that although it was a diverse assortment of styles and moods it never felt anywhere near as jarring as ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ does. Here the grotty punk of ‘People’ grinds against an actual orchestral interlude, which in turn gives way to an early 00’s UKG homage. There are no smooth transitions. It’s deliberately destabilising. Even more startlingly, the most frequent and disorientating clashes happen within the first half hour. Momentum is frequently and consciously repressed. Other than the aforementioned ‘People’, the album’s opening 20 minutes contain nothing of much forward velocity. ‘Frail State of Mind’, the weakest of the early singles, skips along on a fractured loop and sleepy melody. The Birthday Party has a similarly lollaping rhythm and is full of meandering guitar noodles, causal background chatter and a vocal track that almost seems to tumble out of Matty Healy of its own slinky volition. Amidst the above two tracks is ANOTHER ambient, orchestral interlude. And yet this opening section coheres so much better than it has any right to, building towards an absolutely triumphant middle third. Of course It’s discordant but that feels like the correct setting for ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’.

The album is loud and assertive; at times I wonder if It spreads itself too much, almost obnoxiously, like a city banker on a crowded tube. But in general, I’m enthralled at the audacity and bowled over by the band’s ability to pull it off time and time again. Only a handful of acts have ever had the ambition to attempt anything this wide reaching. But a little much is sometimes made of their stylistic sprawl anyway – this isn’t genre tourism; the band always bend sounds and styles into their own image, whether it’s garage, dancehall, emo, ambient or folk. It still ultimately sounds like The 1975. Anyway, you won’t venture for too long without tripping over a bright DX7 synth or a pin sharp guitar lick. For all their evolution they still retain that essence of the desperately precocious, 80s indebted guitar pop band that first released ‘Sex’. On this occasion they skew back to that sound most explicitly on the hopelessly nostalgic ‘Guys’, an endearing ode to friendship formed and sustained over two decades. On the back cover of the album, the four of them appear, in black and white, backs to a wall, propped up alongside one another. It’s a moving image to accompany a moving record. ‘Guys’ builds to to a climax where Matty repeats over and over ‘you guys are the best thing that ever happened to me.’ After listening to ‘Notes on a Conditional form’, you see exactly why he says that.

9.5/10

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The Strokes ‘The New Abnormal’ – Review

16 Apr

It’s hard to fathom now, but in 1992 Johnny Cash was washed up. Past it. Ignored by the Nashville community, dismissed by critics, and forgotten by the wider public; he was feuding with his record label and recovering from numerous surgeries and addictions. Then he met Rick Rubin, backstage at one of his concerts. The rest, as they say, is history. Rubin recorded Cash with two mics, a guitar and an emphasis on his truth. Their ‘American Recordings’ set a precedent. Over the next couple of decades, Rubin would take established but beleaguered superstars and whittle down their sound to the raw essentials whilst amplifying everything that made them superstars In the first place. In the time since, he has performed this same trick on everyone from Neil Diamond to Metallica. It was only a matter of time before he turned his attention to The Strokes.

The successful results are not that surprising. ‘The New Abnormal’ is easily the band’s most focused and cohesive record since ‘First Impressions of Earth’, their messy but generally majestic third album. Rubin’s bright mix emphasises the core essentials; elastic bass lines, interlocking guitar hooks and colour crayoned melodies, while smoothing out the band’s zanier tendencies. On a technical level, It has an identity – something The Strokes have been haphazardly scrambling around for since since the muted reception to 2003’s (now clearly acknowledged) masterpiece ‘Room on Fire’.

The two albums that the band put out in the last decade had the whiff of low risk, low reward. ‘Angles’, a bouncy update of the band’s signature pop-rock sound, was the better of the two. It contained a handful of genuinely great throwbacks alongside some more adventurous curios. As good as it was, it sounded like the fragmented product of five individuals playing different songs on different continents. And there was some truth to that. Even more so, ‘Comedown Machine’ sounded laboured and lacking in focus. It half heartedly cast an eye down several new roads but seemed too lazy to set down them with any enthusiasm or urgency. They didn’t particularly promote either album, save for a smattering of festivals here and there, along with some bad-tempered press interviews that focused more on drug habits, fall outs and family dramas. It gave the impression of a band past the point of caring.

‘The New Abnormal’ then is initially notable for how much the band seem to care. They’ve spent the best part of three months promoting and performing. Press interviews are still a little awkward (in the LA Times this week, Casablancas generously labelled this his fourth favourite project that he’s been involved in) but at least they’re giving them a go. On the album itself are strong signs that they are once more a group of brothers on the same page. The band recorded together in the same studio. The songs are credited to all band members, rather than the individual writer. The gaps between those songs are filled with studio banter, laughs and musical asides. In an affected kind of way, it goes some distance to recapturing the spontaneous, casual cool of a band so desirable that even Alex Turner, one of the coolest men alive, ‘just wanted to be one of the strokes…’

Of course, they are never going to be that band again. No-one is. The disheveled hair has flecks of grey. The vintage t-shirts no longer fit. The disintegrating converse have finally kicked it. ‘Is This It’ was a once in a lifetime masterpiece. To spend any longer asking – was that it? – would do everyone a disservice.

And so I’ll try to focus on the things they do now that they couldn’t have done then. Julian has finally found his range on the wonky, weird synth numbers like ‘At the Door’ and he no longer sounds out of his depth when using his falsetto. Reviewing ‘Comedown Machine’ I complained that his grizzled voice was ill-suited to the taut, clean synth pop he seemed so taken with. On ‘Selfless’ and ‘Endless Summer’ he proves me wrong. He’s a more curious vocalist, taking melodies in unexpected directions. On ‘The Adults are Talking’ he is surprisingly subtle, giving off a sultry r&b vibe as the band click and pop around him. On ‘Endless Summer’ he skews from angelic choirboy on the verses to demonic garage rocker on the chorus. It’s easily his most adventurous turn as a Stroke, and unlike in the past where his experiments sounded stilted or strange, he is largely successful. In the background his band mates are more restrained, doing what they do, as well as they’ve always done it, but more inwardly.

It doesn’t always work though. Occasionally the songs crunch awkwardly, like car gears getting jammed on a long drive. Tracks meander aimlessly past four, five, six minutes as if the band haven’t quite figured out how to end them. Important structural decisions like this feel botched; Fab is audibly, and half heartedly, invited to join in on ‘Ode to the Mets’. Elsewhere verses splutter in to choruses and choruses jut grind to a halt. Perhaps these faults feel more jarring because of The Strokes being who they are – ‘Is This It’ being one of the tightest, most meticulously constructed albums we have. When ‘Hard to Explain’ stopped on a dime after the first chorus, it felt like essential respite rather than there being a lack of a better transition. When Julian shouted ‘stop’ in New York City Cops, it was an imperative, not a request.

It goes without saying that there is something quite fitting about The Strokes releasing an album called ‘The New Abnormal’ at the time of Covid-19. They have form of course; this quintessential NYC band released ‘Is this It’ the week that the towers fell. The Strokes symbolised the end of one era, as well as the start of something new. They drew so much from the past, from an old Manhattan that was being both destroyed and gentrified literally all around them, and set the tone for a new decade of rebels and artists that followed in their wake. This dissonance between yesterday and tomorrow is encapsulated in their sound – something Julian Casablancas once observed when he said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he wanted their songs to have the quality of cassette tapes buried decades before being discovered and played in the future. ‘The New Abnormal’ once again summons that quality. There’s a lot here to get nostalgic about; the metallic guitar tones – reminiscent of Thin Lizzy but EQ’d to the point of sounding like Tron synths. The sluggish downstrokes meshing with Julian’s anguished drawl on the ironically titled ‘Its Not the Same Anymore’. Even the terrible, faux-philosophical lyrics (‘you’d make a better window than the door’). But there is the sense of something risked as well. ‘The New Abnormal’ is adventurous and creative. It’s a reassuring dose of familiarity – with just enough that is new – when so much else is unknown.

7.5/10

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Dogleg ‘Melee’ – Review

2 Apr

The way that Dogleg put it, ‘Melee’ has arrived at the worst possible moment. In a recent tweet they wrote “already thought this year was starting off as a huge trainwreck before this mess and now seeing everything we tried to build up go down in huge fiery flames makes me ridiculously depressed.” The album was recorded over a year ago. A lot of time has been spent clearing the way, like a circle pit being prepared during the countdown. They couldn’t have possibly anticipated that Spring 2020 was going to be a write off. That their tour would be cancelled. That promotional opportunities would be flushed down the drain. That they wouldn’t be able to leave the house, much let do a radio session. But the way I see it, there is no better time for this album. ‘Melee’ is the gut punching, kung-fu kicking Rock album you need in your life right now. It’s a cathartic whirlpool of tension bursting because there is no where left for the energy to go. It’s an album about battling anxiety in a time of widespread anxiety. In this context, ‘Melee’ feels essential.

Like many of the best guitar albums of recent years, ‘Melee’ lives at the intersection between a lot of misunderstood and misrepresented sub genres. It has the whiplash intensity of post-hardcore, the heart-rattling sincerity of first wave emo and the melodic ingenuity of pop-punk. The band also cite 00s indie bands like The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys as influences, and you can hear it in the bright hooks and tasteful way they structure and arrange the songs.

It’s part of Dogleg-lore that the band will give free merch to any member of the audience that can beat them at Super Smash Bros. Nobody has. The band convert that button bashing proficiency into musical efficiency. The riffs come hard and fast; completed with the practiced intensity of a pro-gamer battling the final boss. The momentum is carried by a drummer Parker Grissom who pounds every snare as if his life depends on him breaking the skin or drawing blood in the effort. The hit that opens ‘Cannonball’, possibly the album’s most vivid performance, sounds like a bullet being smacking the air.

The velocity never lulls – when the relentless onslaught of noise is occasionally paused, the silence is pierced by feedback or shouts that ring like battle cries. There are no slow songs and little sonic, rhythmic or musical variation. The closest they come is on ‘Cannonball’ where an acoustic chug briefly intercedes the noise before a choir of screams reset the status quo. Strings are introduced on ‘Ender’  at the very back of the album as a kind of curtain call but by then the damage to your eardrums has already been done.

The mix is fiery hot. You can almost feel the guitars vibrate. The vocals are mixed sensibly low to the point that you can frequently can’t make out what singer Alex Stoitsiadis is saying. A few choice affirmations do rise above the noise though: ‘will you be the fire or the wind?’, ‘time will let you down’, ‘I know it’s just you and me’, ‘I’ll keep it in my head, every increment.’ Stoitsiadis is no poet. His writing is vague and non-committal at best. But he’s able to summon incredible intensity with the limited tools at his disposal. The sentiments behind his words are carried by his raw and loud vocal performances.

Beyond the throat shredding, guitar thrashing and Nintendo references, lies a collection of burning heart on sleeve confessionals. Cryptic highlight ‘Fox’ finds Stoitsiadis floundering inside his own head, unable to articulate the thoughts that are ‘pressing against’ his skin. As the song rattles towards its end he exposes his deepest concern: ‘Any moment now I will disintegrate.’ On an album that hurtles around musical and emotional corners at a frightening pace, it’s a constant surprise that Dogleg don’t disintegrate. In spite of the odds, ‘Melee’ is a brilliantly triumphant rock record for 2020.

9/10

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Vampire Weekend ‘Father of the Bride’ – Review

11 May

On the cover of ‘Father of the Bride’, Vampire Weekend’s first album in six years, the earth is represented as a cartoonish symbol, offset by the striking whiteness of the background and a corporation logo for ‘Sony Music’. There is a song, ‘Unbearably White’, that elaborates on this tussle between nature and the bright, white hum of the digital environment we’ve created. ‘Presented with darkness, we turn to the light’ argues Ezra Koenig. But it’s the blinding light of computer screens, mobile phones and televisions that he’s referring to. In Ezra’s vision, nature will fight back. ‘There’s an avalanche coming…’ The album itself is populated by digital noise, electronic gargles and processing but these sounds are superseded by crickets chirping, frogs ribbeting and birds singing. In the liner notes, Father of the Bride is dedicated to planet earth, and in interviews Ezra has described being nostalgic for a Nineties brand of environmentalism and the Sega Mega Drive game ‘Ecco the Dolphin’. If their last album, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ exuded an anxiety very specific to being in your late 20’s and living in NYC, then ‘Father of the Bride’ is about reengaging with nature, in a way that approximates hope. There is a freedom and relief to this. It’s like the soft exhalation after holding your breath. The smell of wet pavements after a storm.

Both the opening and closing tracks open with Ezra singing ‘I know’, but his wisdom isn’t borne from a knowledge of what is certain; rather an acceptance that some things aren’t, and will never be certain. ‘Father of the Bride’ has a certain calm stoicism that marks it out from its predecessor in a way that is unexpected considering how tightly wound and preoccupied with the passing of time, that album sounded.

It doesn’t start off this way. The record opens with wedding day drama – a bride uncertain of whether to stay or go – and this sense of quandary carries through to ‘Harmony Hall’, which establishes a theme of individuality vs group think. In this vision, the more that people harmonise the less articulate the message becomes. Individuals become lost in the crowd. ‘Wicked snakes’ are revealed. The song’s most memorable line is perhaps the most universal catch-22 of all – ‘I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.’ It’s a call for the freedom and peace that the rest of the album responds to.

This idea is returned to on the album’s pretty closer ‘Jerusalem, New York, Berlin’, where Koenig meditates on another heady concept – heritage. In particular, his heritage as a Jew, raised in New York, living in the shadow of both Berlin and Jerusalem. Like Harmony Hall, It’s loosely about lending your voice to that of the crowd until you eventually lose your sense of individual identity. Sometimes you can surrender yourself to a bigger idea that ultimately can’t save you, whether it’s religion (as represented by Jerusalem), culture (New York) or politics (Berlin): ‘You’ve given me the big dream but you can’t make it real’. It’s a song that acknowledges both dream and disaster and holds them along side each other as colours on the same spectrum. It asks the questions and provides no answers, with an acceptance that maybe there is no answer, just an ‘endless conversation’. On the boyunt ‘Stranger’ he puts it another way – ‘I used to look for an answer, I used to knock on every door / but you’ve got the wave on, music playing, don’t need to look anymore.’

‘Stranger’ is a self-assured riff on maturity. In every sense it exudes a confidence that only comes with experience. If before Vampire Weekend sounded like a band constantly searching for an itch to scratch, then the opposite is true on ‘Father of the Bride’ and its ‘tasteful palette’ of sounds. Warm horns and lush sprinkles of piano tickle the edges of the track and – of everything on the album – ‘Stranger’ in particular lifts the band to a higher level of serenity. The song details a cozy night at home, with Ezra listening to his wife and sister in law having a conversation downstairs. ‘I’ve left those wilding days of old, your house is warmer, the wilderness is cold.’ Some fans might miss the frenzied energy of Vampire Weekend’s early work or the rattling anxiety of ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ but few could argue with the largely content place they’ve now settled in. 

It’s definitely the baggiest they’ve ever sounded. The freshly pressed slacks are splattered with pricks of mud. The crisp, button down Oxford shirt has wrinkled and come untucked. The fringe has fallen below the eyebrows. It’s the sound of a band who are assured enough to allow their rigorous standards to slip ever so slightly but have the confidence to pull it off.

And after six long years away, it’s only fitting that Vampire Weekend return with an ambitious set of eighteen songs. Springsteen’s ‘The River’ has been cited as the model; a double album with a sense of thematic unity and cohesion rather than the sprawling, say yes to every idea approach of ‘The White Album’. Amidst this comfortable confidence is the sense that Vampire Weekend have never tried this hard before. Despite its length and strong sense of adventure, the mix is crisp bright and poppy; Ariel Reichsted is behind the boards, sharpening the hooks and generally making sure every diverse sound is blended in a nuanced way. As a consequence, the production is decidedly less idiosyncratic than Rostam’s used to be but also more accessible. In fact, the album is accessible on every other front as well. Ezra has largely dispensed with the expensive adjectives and exotic proper nouns that rippled through his older work. He still dances around the point, and his songs continue to be rich in allusion and metaphor, but usually there is a discernible message that might once have been cloaked or concealed.

The aspirational sophistication of the band’s early days lingers in the finer details – such as the baroque piano breakdown in ‘Harmony Hall’ and the combination of formal strings and Palm Wine guitar on ‘Rich Man’. But generally the references are more 20th century American. Several of the songs closely resemble the middling pop-rock of AM radio in the mid 70’s – Fleetwood Mac , Paul Simon, Carole King etc while a jammy middle stretch of the album has reminded a lot of people of Phish and Grateful Dead (references which admittedly go over my head I’m afraid). It’s the most collaborative album the band have made, featuring guest appearances both subtle (DJ Dahi, BloodPop®, Rostam) and immediately obvious (guitarist Steve Lacy of The Internet, and Danielle Haim). All of them pay off and compliment the generous, indulgent tone that the record strikes.

As a double album, ‘Father of the Bride’ is understandably imperfect. Three (three!) country duets with Danielle Haim is probably overkill (I myself could do without the slightly disingenuous ‘We Belong Together’ which is little more than a genre exercise without the necessary sincerity). The back half of the record feels a little lumpy at points, lagging with the inoffensive ‘Rich Man’ and ‘My Mistake’, both of which are more mood boards than songs. But you’re more forgiving of low points on a double album and in some ways it adds to the record’s baggy, indulgent charm.

In a recent interview Ezra said “After you make the black-and-white album cover with the songs about death, you can’t go deeper. This is the life-goes-on record.” Like the sunflower that grows in the morning, the Flower Moon that shines out of the darkness, or the protagonist in ‘Big Blue’ who finds solace in the beauty of the ocean during a particularly difficult time – Vampire weekend have survived and adapted after great uncertainty. This recurring theme becomes most clear on the penultimate track ‘Spring Snow’ where the sun melts the snow and ‘bells start to ring.’ The song’s reference to seasons passing and ‘the end’ suggests that the ticking doubts haven’t completed cleared from Ezra’s mind – after all, snow will fall again next winter – but for the moment that bed is cozy and the view outside is beautiful. Once again on ‘Father of the Bride’ man surrenders to the glorious, inevitable will of nature. And it sounds delightful.

9/10

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The Drums ‘Brutalism’ – Review

17 Apr

Back in 2009 ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ carried The Drums on a wave of hype that anticipated greatness. Both NME and Pitchfork, rarely united on anything at the time, crowned them ‘Best new band’ at the end of the year. In retrospect the song presented The Drums at their most accessible and least likely. Its wide screen romance is emblematic of their early output but the airy light-heartedness would not be easily replicated. In contrast to the reputation they’ve built since, as dour miserabilists, the track stands apart. Indeed, few songs smack of 2009 Obama-optimism as much this exhalation of ocean breeze. ‘There’s a new kid in the town, he’s gonna make it all better’ Peirce convincingly crooned. Ten years on, the folly in blind belief in an incumbent president is clear to see. But even now, listening to the carefree whistles and twanging bassline, it’s easy to get swept back up in that feeling for three and half minutes. Emotional escapism – whatever the emotion – has always been The Drums calling card. Which makes their latest trick all the more impressive; to maintain that glorious, escapist feeling while wading in to the territory of brutal self examination, hyper specific lyricism in the context of America, 2019. ‘Brutalism’ is therefore, in every conceivable sense, The Drums most daring album to date.

That sense of optimism captured on ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ certainly isn’t replicated but neither is the crushing pessimism of ‘Portamento’, ‘Encyclopaedia’ or ‘Abysmal Thoughts’. Instead, there is now a stoicism, borne from experience and increasing understanding of how the world works. On ‘Pretty Cloud’ Pierce glories in the unpredictability of love for another, equally impulsive individual, whether that brings sun or sorrow. ‘I am blisful in whatever you give me. I lean on the mystery…’ whereas a decade ago he was fretting about how he was ‘going to make you mine’ he now seems certain that ‘good luck and a good fuck, a glass of wine and some quality wine is going to make you mine.’

The Drums mythic romanticism and cinematic despair has been usurped by an almost zen-like ‘que sarà confidence. Jonny is at peace with his happiness and his sadness. He embraces his sexuality and desire. The mean spirited bitterness that soured some of his past writing has matured in to something like acceptance. The contentedness that exudes from the lyrics is perfectly complimented by the musical forthrightness. Sampled drums no longer get drowned in reverb. Instead, crisply programmed beats trickle loudly in the mix. The bass lines also get projected. Real chords consistently flow from the guitars for the first time on a Drums album and every sound coalesces together very neatly in to a polished pop whole. Compared to the lo-fi production and simplistic musicality of the group’s early work, ‘Brutalism’ sounds modern and glorious. None of the band’s personality is lost in the process either, if anything it’s an elevation of everything that marked them out as unique.

Pierce is still a romantic at heart, the type of sap who ‘bet my life on one kiss’, as he puts it in the title track. But this time around there is an understanding that the highs and lows of life approximate two sides of the same coin tossed by the hand of fate. On ‘Brutalism’ and ‘262 Bedford Avenue’ desire might lead to heartbreak, but it’s pursued anyway as an end within itself. The happiness described on the album finale ‘Blip of Joy’ may be temporary but it’s there to be cherished for the time it lasts. Jonny’s voice is as gooey as ever. He’s still coo-Ing and harmonising with himself, still reaching for notes ever so slightly out of reach, still sounding giddy at the possibilities of love and melody. In the heartbreakingly stark ‘Nervous’ he presents his most sophisticated and honest vocal performance to date, honing in on the particulars of a post-break up reunion with total clarity. ‘I Wanna Go Back’ is similarly moving, conjuring memories of the classic ‘Book of Stories’. The hooks may not as be as sharp, and the chorus doesn’t linger in the memory quite as potently, but the nostalgic sentiment is utterly moving.

Essentially ‘Brutalism’ is a colourful explosion of everything The Drums have always prided themselves on: sticky melodies, simple arrangements and vivid emotion. It’s firmly rooted in the tradition of indie pop but sounds less tethered to the sometimes cloying conventions of the genre. It’s also less tethered to the set of conventions The Drums created for themselves a decade ago. But the experimentation feels playful and sincere. Crucially, these still sound like Drums songs. Compared to the lumpy and awkward diversions of the band’s other left-field experiment, ‘Encyclopaedia’, ‘Brutalism’ feels like a more natural progression. It confirms once again, if it needed confirming, that The Drums are a group to treasure and one of the most inexplicably underrated bands of the decade.

8.5/10

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