The eighth studio album from the once-majestic The Dears is a continuation of the downward trajectory they have been on for a good number of years now. When you release a record as awe-inspiringly glorious as No Cities Left it may well be that you will never reach those dizzying heights again. But it would be nice if you tried…
In press interviews, the band have linked the mood of their new record to their magnus opus, yet this is doing a huge disservice to No Cities Left, which crackles and fizzes with sparkle, grace and vivacity which Lovers Rock certainly does not. It is smooth, but that isn’t a positive here. There is a disappointing flatness to the songwriting, the performances and the general drive of the record. It is the sound of a band going through the motions, scared to make much of a show of themselves for fear of making a mistake. It’s quietly charming and pleasant in a very inconsequential way, but ultimately it is bland. In fact, it can feel like something of an ordeal as it plods from one track to another.
Album opener “Heart of an Animal” attempts to be anthemic in its structure, yet the delivery falls flat and the players feel out of step with one another. You want someone (anyone) to grab the song by the horns and take it up several layers so that you can hang on to something that may make the tune memorable. All of the ingredients are there, but they fail to gel. This is the underlying issue with the record, as one track languidly slips into another with nothing much to separate them. Before you know it, the journey is over with no emotional mementos to remind you of the you shared time together.
Singer Murray Lightburn still has one of those voices – the kind that can melt your heart from a thousand yards with its exquisite vibrato timbre – but the delivery is lacking inspiration, vigour and life. It’s all poise when you want purpose. It’s not until eighth track “Play Dead” that we get a sense of the dexterity, depth and pathos that Lightburn is capable of conjuring from his vocals. There are imperfections in the performance, little inflections and breaks of his voice that add genuine feeling and personality to the song that are lacking elsewhere on Lovers Rock.
“The Worst In Us” is the album highlight. The intro’s cranking, almost faltering guitar line reminds us that clarity can be a hindrance to quality. Where “The Worst In Us” sets itself apart from the album’s other nine tracks is that it attempts, though not altogether successfully, to do something different. Halfway through, the track dissolves and a new drum pattern and a piano enter the fray, marking the second part of the song. It’s hardly the boldest of moves, but on an album lacking any clear sense of direction other than the writing and performing of fairly forgettable indie fare, this at least momentarily stops the listener in their tracks. The fact that the band then fail to fully explore the new potentials laid out in front of them is disappointing, but also neither here nor there at this point in proceedings.
A general sense of apathy is emitted from Lovers Rock. The Dears are playing it safe, which is never a good look if you want your creativity to be taken seriously. Where Lightburn’s voice once burnt you to the core, it now only hints at the desperate sense of ferocity that used to kick-start your muted heart. The opening lines of “Stille Lost” are “We’re lost / Nobody gives a damn,” and, by the time it turns up at the mid-point the album, it rings like honest self-reflection, and you merely nod your head in agreement.