Cherry-Picking on Degeneration Street
On their fifth studio album Degeneration Street, Canadian indie rockers The Dears strive for a well-rounded mix of the intimate and grandiose. For the most part, they are successful. With a foundation of guitar, drum and bass, early songs are accented with such Baroque details as a harpsichord around the edges, while others are built over an electronic beat. From song to song, they switch key, tempo and mood as smoothly as one would change shoes. Particularly open to change is frontman Murray Lightburn’s vocal stylings: most often a warm, inviting baritone that quickly flutters to a falsetto or a yell without a hint of strain.
Lyrically, The Dears tend toward a dramatic morbidity. One’s life, future, and heavenly salvation are frequently at stake on a cosmic scale: “Galactic tides could end our lives / taking us down in the moonlight” (“Galactic Tides”). Only in the quiet meditation of “Tiny Man” is refuge found: “This is your safety net,” yet the album closer and title track finds the narrator (and all humanity) once more in peril: “Get me to the sun or we’ll all be gone.” While these lyrics aim for high drama, they are vague, sparse, and become repetitive to fill a four- or five-minute song. For the listener, as engaging as the sound may be, the lyrics are at times an obstacle to complete immersion in the song. Songs can feel longer than they are.
The Dears are at their best when their musical strengths either overpower or are complemented by the lyrics. “Blood” features a soaring, if repetitive, chorus that begs to be sung along to; “Thrones” has Murray Lightburn build from singing to a yell with an urgency reminiscent of the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler; “Stick with Me Kid” wins with a heavy minor-key mood suggesting intrigue and escape; and “1854” has a slow swing and roaming bass line that moves you. These are the tracks that will keep any listener coming back to Degeneration Street.