Rushed, bland release from minimalist trio
Just over a year after the release of their sophomore record Water, Chicago trio Dehd return with their third album, Flower of Devotion via Fire Talk. Determined to step it up, the band immediately went back into the studio intent on creating their most refined record yet. Consisting of bassist Emily Kempf, who shares vocal duties with guitarist and producer Jason Balla, along with drummer Eric McGrady, Dehd was originally formed as an outlet for Kempf’s and Balla’s romantic relationship. Where 2019’s Water chronicles their breakup, Flower of Devotion picks up right where they left off.
Musically, there isn’t much going on. Dehd has built a career on their minimalistic style of instrumentation, heavily relying on vocals to carry them along. Unfortunately, because of this stylistic choice, much of the music ends up falling flat. When a band decides to go this route, it doesn’t matter how technically talented a vocalist, or in this case vocalists, are. They must have something to say. Every track on Flower of Devotion is a lyrical contradiction, somehow both brilliant and boring at the same time.
In a technical sense and simply looking at the lyrics on the surface level, there is nothing remarkable about them. Ambitious as some of the themes of the record may be, the lyrics are vague and general, leaving listeners having serious difficulty connecting to the material. The first words Kempf sings on the opener and easily best track “Desire” are, “Baby, I love you, always thinking of you.” This broad declaration doesn’t mean anything to listeners because there’s never any contextualization. It’s like listening in on an inside joke where everyone’s in on it but you.
On the other hand, despite how simple the lyrics are, the execution of them is to be celebrated. At the end of “Desire,” Balla repeatedly sings, “You are my dream,” while over him, Kempf cries, “Let me out.” Ending the track in a screaming match not only sets the tone of the entire album, but it’s a creative and incredibly smart use of the material. Oftentimes throughout the runtime, Kempf and Balla will converse back and forth before dissolving into formulaic vocal harmonies. In “Haha,” they even reenact a conversation where Balla sings, “Well I loved you with all that I had” and Kempf responds with, “Oh ya I loved you too, but now that time has really passed.” This technique is both playful and interesting in places where it’s otherwise easy to disengage.
Most admirable about the entire release is its candidness. The honesty with which both Kempf and Balla approach their admittedly bland lyrics is worthy of serious praise. For an entire record about a relationship in transition and the difficulties of being alone, to sing “I still love you/ even as I leave you” from “Flood,” directly to your ex takes some serious guts. It’s this vulnerability that creates the smallest crack for listeners to sneak in through and really get to the core of this album.
Despite all the talk of Kempf and Balla, the true star of Flower of Devotion is McGrady. The percussion is the only instrumentation that truly stands out and on virtually every song, he is the sturdy foundation keeping everything together. He shines from beginning to end.
While Flower of Devotion is by no means a bad release, it is also not particularly strong. It seems the turn-around time between album cycles was too rushed, only leaving them time to grow slightly instead of transform entirely. Even though their overall style is pretty bare bones, there’s still intriguing ideas and the potential for Dehd to release something mind-blowing in the future.