Album Review: Drop Nineteens – Hard Light

[Wharf Cat; 2023]

There was a weightless suspension to living in the 90s which the 20th century sorely lacks. A feeling of suburban stability that expanded itself onto media and art. When I called this past season out as ‘The Summer of Shoegaze’, I noticed a trend in contemporary culture: the strong breeze of bittersweet melancholy and the aesthetics of washed out guitar chords rising in the underground channels and esoteric music circles. There’s a new Slowdive album, scene-darlings They’re Gutting a Body of Water and Full Body 2 are picking up steam and Gregg Araki’s influence on culture returns with the increasing hype for his restored masterpieces getting wide re-releases. It’s not surprising, really: the nostalgic, transcendental sound of the genre proved to be progressively influential and modernist, encompassing eroticism and brutality, a vague hypnagogic experience that defies the structured totalitarian concerns of pop music.

What nobody seemed to expect was the sudden announcement that one of America’s most interesting voices in shoegaze was making a comeback. The mighty Drop Nineteens, who pretty much dissolved after just one album (their second effort effectively was a wholly different group of people making wholly different music), somehow found shared ground after a 30 (!!) year hiatus. A footnote in the US alt-rock canon, their sprawling (somewhat unfocused) 1992 debut album Delaware sounded like a cross of Sonic Youth and Smashing Pumpkins, with the vibrant lead single “Winona” picking up steam on MTV. Then things happened like they always do: money ran out, tours took their toll, labels became erratic and things went down the drain.

But now, three decades later, most of the original group (drummer Pete Koeplin from the second iteration remains) have not only found a striking perspective for what could be seen as the ‘real’ follow-up to Delaware, they also released a standout shoegaze album of the year.

Yes, Hard Light sounds like a lost fossil of the late 90s, a shimmering opal that caught an alternative reality in clear stone, throwing rainbows back with every spin of the crystal. It’s more focused than the group’s past work – and most of the American shoegaze canon, too. Similar in tone to Deerhunter’s reading of the genre, they experiment with guitar textures to devise fluid melodies that almost come across as a form of spatial design. The somewhat acoustic “Lookout” is a great example of this: an intimate track that ruminates on American landscapes and wanderlust-motif (“When the trees get weird / I just wanna be here / I guess I won’t be bored anymore / So don’t cry please”), its echoing guitars suggest the very space of the room the record is played back in. The nocturnal jangle and mellotron of “Gal” serenades an inexistent Berlin as much as the sudden realisation of having fallen in love, and finds strangely poetic images that remind of Michael Stipe’s writing. 

“The Price was High” – fronted by guitarist Paula Kelley, whose voice sounds not a day older than it did in 1992 – could be the most compelling radio-single-moment of the year so far; a crystalline rhythm section provides ample room for sharp guitars, while Kelley’s diffused vocals retain the hushed eroticism of Hope Sandoval. In terms of writing almost like a strange combination of “Losing My Religion” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, it feels like an obscure leftover from a long lost mixtape that remains unidentified for decades, only to suddenly appear in a wholly different context.

The same could be said of lead single “Scapa Flow”, a distant cousin of the Pumpkins’ “1979” in its autumnal glow and confident tone. There’s a hint of Jeff Tweedy hovering over Gregg Ackell’s vocal melody and delivery (think “She’s a Jar”), while the lyrics cleverly reference LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” – a strange but welcome nod from a group that preceded James Murphy’s by many years. There’s a euphoria to the emotional gravitas in its composition, a quality which has always marked Drop Nineteens’ best work, which modern shoegaze often lacks: a deep understanding of music that is rarely glimpsed. It’s found in the Johnny Marr-style playing that characterises the verses of “Tarantula”, the washed out glory of the brief instrumental “Rose with Smoke” or the muscular push wall-of-noise melodies of “Another One Another”.

Genius is also found in those strangely fluid moments of poetry that blossom all over Hard Light. These are isolated lines, but they tumble forward with clever imagery of an endless summer, amber-locked youth. Some favorites: “And we feel like it’s after school / In the afternoon / In the afterlife” – “Your heart of tortoise is shrinking” – “On the Champs-Élysées / On no rest / You fluoresce”.

There’s always been something clumsy to the best lyrics of alt-rock’s icons, which is charming in its unkempt adolescence, but also creates associative links that can only be understood through the inner glow of youth and a denial of any and all bondage society attributes to responsible living. This becomes a direct topic in “A Hitch”, which might be the closest cousin to Deerhunter on the album. Making direct references to drug usage, it summons the off-kilter arrogance substances have on us, tipping the hat to The Beatles both in its lyrical reference to “Dr. Robert” and the technique of reversed guitars from “Tomorrow Never Knows”. 

Even if Hard Light is more homogenous than Delaware, it retains the group’s interest in always finding a different tonality, skipping from one genre or influence to another and conceiving genuine hit material. Even on the seven-minute closer, the spectral “T”, the group take a sudden turn towards the gothic echoing of The Cure’s Bloodflowers era. A compelling underwater ballad, “T” has Ackell and Kelley duet about dancefloors and long nights and brief moments that exist within a concept of “us” that, to outsiders, will always remain hidden.

“T” is almost a thesis-track: the rumination that this band, this album itself, might well not have existed, could have just passed by, been a missed chance like there are so many. And it’s somewhat wild, really, to figure that this obscure alt-rock group that made a record with modest cult appeal 31 years ago has returned and delivered genre jewellery. But here they are, somehow beating all the odds and proving that American shoegaze’s most vital force had laid hidden in the shadows for decades. It’s the rare occasion where a modern classic just appears, seemingly out of nowhere, with little to no fanfare, waiting to be discovered by a new generation, whose summer has just started.