Album Review: Dry Cleaning – Stumpwork

[4AD; 2022]

On Dry Cleaning’s 2021 debut album, New Long Leg, Florence Shaw issued a manifesto: “Do everything, feel nothing.” This terse statement summarized Shaw’s take on present-day existence: incessant stimuli, targeted marketing campaigns, social-media prompts that promote a seize-the-day attitude while ultimately benefiting KOZMIKCORP, keeping various fragile economies on life support. We’re habituated by BUYVERSE to chase the next distraction, the next involvement that will stabilize our precarious sense of self, convince us that we belong, that we’re of value, that we’re living to the fullest. We bolster and rebolster our egos, and yet we rarely grasp the miracle of being unconditionally alive.

If Dry Cleaning’s debut introduced the British quartet as reluctant insiders striking a balance between cynicism and caffeinated drive, half-hearted participants in the psychodrama of consumption, their new album, Stumpwork, frames them as default observers, wannabe renunciates, refugees from the Land of GIMME. On “No Decent Shoes for Rain”, Shaw updates her “do everything, feel nothing” mantra, announcing: “I’m bored, but I get a kick out of buying things.” Of course, the trick with this kind of balancing act is to illustrate and even evoke boredom without actually becoming boring. In the case of Stumpwork, Dry Cleaning consistently pull off this complex task. Shaw crafts a quietly urgent and moodily contemplative set of proclamations, quips, and confessions. Sonically, Tom Dowse, Lewis Maynard, and Nick Buxton continue to display their absorption of the popular canon, navigating innovative riffs, rhythms, and textures.

The album opens with “Anna Calls from the Arctic”. As on New Long Leg, Shaw’s poetic style often involves juxtaposing a throwaway comment – for example, “don’t shrunk my things / no shrunking” – with a more confrontational line, such as the sociopolitical taunt, “If you’re rich, you look good / that’s not news.” In this way, Shaw asserts herself as a willing parodist and reticent philosopher. Musically, the piece is atypical for Dry Cleaning, built on a coldwave synth part and minimally staccato drumbeat. As it unfolds, however, the synths grow more plangent. Shaw contrastingly maintains a forced equanimity, declaring, without perhaps being convinced, “we will flower.”

“Kwenchy Kups” features Shaw’s response to climate change and the multibillion-dollar industry revolving around environmentally kosher food, fabric, travel, etc. “Peaceful fish meat lying dead and flat in a chiller,” Shaw professes, sounding like a cross between Captain Beefheart and a Westworld robot on the verge of self-awareness. Dowse’s bright guitar movements are undergirded by Buxton and Maynard’s ebullient drum-and-bass interplays. With “Gary Ashby”, Dowse exhibits some of his most intricate work, melodic and rhythmic shifts wrapping around Shaw’s sprechgesang. Lyrically, the track serves as an impressionistic elegy to an unremarkable Everyman, Shaw layering non sequiturs to illustrate the way in which we experience losses yet systematically avoid processing our grief.

With the title song, the vocalist extends a jaded karaoke take on 60s Motown: “doo doo doo.” She follows that with the offhand jeer, “Whoa, just killed a giant wolf,” exemplifying the way in which violence is euphemized in 2022, the ongoing Seventh Extinction little more than a blip on a late-night newsfeed. On “Don’t Press Me”, Shaw tackles her most conventional singing part while Dowse offers a thrilling guitar progression accented by Buxton’s jazzy percussion. Shaw’s sung choruses on “Conservative Hell” are punctuated by quotidian notions shared in a compressed monotone; “she loves things, she loves stuff”.

On “Liberty Log”, Shaw’s narcotized vocal and the band’s discordant forays, including Dowse’s use of feedback, drones, and mid-tone glitches, combine to yield Dry Cleaning’s most apocalyptic-sounding and tonally compelling track to date. This weighty gestalt is reiterated on closer “Icebergs”, where Shaw addresses the death of someone she presumably knew; or, possibly, adopts the persona of a lost soul or hungry ghost, commenting from a murky bardo on her own demise (“We found your lingerie after you were gone / and it made you seem so human”). Midway, the band take on a more aggressive timbre, Shaw concluding with the uncharacteristically earnest reminder: “Keep the curiosity of a child if you can.”

As a writer, Shaw is a student of Gertrude Stein, Dadaism, and the Gysin/Burroughs cut-up method, not to mention the Warholian School of cultural satire. In terms of vocal delivery, Laurie Anderson, particularly her spoken-word landmark Big Science, is a primary source. The band effectively synthesize various templates, showcasing their reconfiguration of everything from goth-pop to new wave to contemporary post-punk. While New Long Leg basked in a chic trendiness, Stumpwork more soberly conjures the spectrum of 21st century life: our endless search for identity, our egoic highs and crashes, the ineluctable tedium.