Pop rock band’s latest is a diverse, but bleak affair
Murray Lightburn, The Dears’ frontman, has often been likened to Damon Albarn, even when it makes more sense to pair him with Arthur Lee. Yes, Lightburn’s voice at times bears an uncanny resemblance to Albarn’s, but when he shakes loose from his gentler tendencies and sings with bravado, listeners wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that it was Lee’s haunting voice behind the microphone.
Lightburn’s latest album with The Dears, the self-described “orchestral noir pop rock band” from Montreal, earns yet another comparison to Lee’s work with Love on Forever Changes. Both records are eclectic in sound, backed by a full-fledged roster of strings and horns, fueled by big ideas and rife with ambition. Forever Changes is now over 50 years old, and regardless of whether it’s aged well, it probably fit snugly within the psychedelic and prog rock scenes that were in vogue at the time. Lovers Rock, on the other hand, is like a fish out of water; it’s so scattered and theatrical that it belongs on the shelf next to Sgt. Pepper’s.
Two songs on Lovers Rock work very well: “Play Dead,” a bubbly tune inspired by Stevie Wonder, and “I Know What You’re Thinking and It’s Awful,” a simmering showcase for Lightburn’s complex, brooding arrangements. These highlights are neither helped nor hurt by the surrounding tracklist; where the songs on a different concept album might flow from one into another, stylistic walls divvy up Lovers Rock into a series of non sequiturs.
A thematic thread loosely ties together the songs, which otherwise sound like they’re from ten different albums. Unfortunately, the theme is that the world is full of complacent klutzes who have been brainwashed to shrug their shoulders at the apocalypse. “Ashes to ashes we are/ Glorious dust to dust/ There is no place on Earth where/ A god will hold our trust again,” Lightburn coldly remarks on “No Place on Earth.” The Dears have always used their music as an outlet for existentialism, but just as with 2011’s Degeneration Street, Lightburn’s songwriting can get too dark and overbearing for the listener to appreciate what he’s trying to say. Listen to the cynicism behind “Heart of an Animal”: “I can definitely feel/ The ails taking over us/ And now/ We’re at the bottom of a trash pile.” Lovers Rock is like a box of chocolates, and at the center of each of those chocolates is a panic attack.
This isn’t to say that the whole album is a drag; it’s infrequently light and agile, save for the consistently nihilistic lyrics. Give the album a try if you think the two or three fleeting moments of fun might be worth many more moments of confusion and dreariness.