Shortly after being founded in 2010, Lower Dens found themselves garnering attention almost immediately after their debut was released. While a lot of the initial buzz generated around Lower Dens was due to comparisons to Beach House, they were a solid indie-pop outfit on their own. Over the years, they’ve gradually shaped their sound into something a little harder to classify, incorporating elements of krautrock and post-punk. Their last album, Escape From Evil, flirted with elements of synth-pop but stayed firmly anchored in the realm of dream pop. However, on their newest album, The Competition, it looks they’ve gone all-in on this ’80s revival sound.
This new direction for Lower Dens is glaringly apparent from the start; the opening track, “Galapagos,” has more in common with Depeche Mode than Beach House. It’s a pretty typical synth-pop fare until it hits the 2-minute mark, where the group introduces some jarring dissonant stabbing synths and the drum syncopation becomes unstable. There are a few other points on this album where Lower Dens throw their own twist on what would otherwise be considered a pretty stale sound; for instance, track eight, “Simple Life,” does something similar, yet it sounds just as fresh. Until the bridge, it’s one of the less engaging songs on the album, because, by this point in the album, the instrumentation and drum patterns are the same as all the previous songs. But when the bridge hits, the entire thing dissolves into a swirling mess of synths and vocals over a steady beat; it’s pretty great.
Unfortunately, this album suffers from many of the same pitfalls as other synth-pop efforts. The biggest offender here is how unrelentingly uniform the entire album is. Almost every song employs the same drum pattern, and the instrumental pallet is limited to synths, post-punk guitars and a bassline that sounds like it was ripped from the Twin Peaks Soundtrack. Regardless of how strong the individual songs might be, when packaged as an album, they mesh into a solid block of sameness which tests the listener’s patience. For instance, the vivid air of melancholia which pervades track nine, “Empire Sundown,” would be really impressive… if they hadn’t placed it after the similar (and superior) song, “Real Thing.”
The Competition has its flaws for sure, the biggest issue being how one dimensional it is. The final track, “In Your House,” provides a much-needed change of pace, with its sparse piano and gentle crooning, but it’s just too little too late. However, it’s worth noting that there are moments of real genius sprinkled throughout. Unfortunately, those moments are too inconsistent and spread out to really engage the listener in a meaningful way. Lower Dens typically excels when it comes to incorporating their influences without making them sound recycled, so maybe they just need a little more time to gestate their newfound affection for ’80s pop.