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With “Brutalism,” Jonny Pierce Is Back

The Drums, now a solo act, offer a hard-won path forward

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The most striking song on The Drums’ “Brutalism” is its most blatantly pissed-off. “626 Bedford Avenue” describes a self-destructive but addictive relationship. As catchy as it is, it’s punctuated by very brief bursts of turntable scratching, and its lyrics are barbed: “Get your head out of your ass and take a good look at yourself… you might be a psychopath/ you might want to check that,” with Jonny Pierce alternately calling the title address “626 stupid avenue.” The upbeat melody makes the bitter tone all the more cutting.

The Drums began as a duo, consisting of Pierce and Jacob Graham, but the group now exists as a one-man band consisting of Pierce. They had a hit single in the UK with “Let’s Go Surfing” in 2010, but Island Records dropped them after their second album. Tensions between band members seem to have taken their toll. Pierce views “Brutalism” as a return after a period of depression and substance abuse.

In an interview with Stereogum, Pierce recalls a 2009 interview with The Times of London when he was startled to be asked if anyone in The Drums is gay. Looking back at that moment, he said, “I remember lying and avoiding answering — ‘None of that really matters, what matters is music,’ something like that. I remember feeling really ashamed, but also justified in not being fully transparent.” He now feels that it’s very important to talk publicly about being gay and that his sexuality is a gift that’s led to empathy with other minorities. Describing the song “Loner,” he said, “Being gay forced me to think differently, develop my creative side, and to carry a punk attitude.”

The Drums’ early music mined post-punk influences, with Joy Division/ New Order soundalike basslines. They’ve also long pursued the combination of dark allusions with cheerful tunes. The 2011 single “Money” referred to domestic violence and serenaded a lover with the chorus, “I want to buy you something but I don’t have any money.”

“Brutalism” is more optimistic than the band’s last album, “Abysmal Sounds.” “Nervous” is an acoustic ballad which, as its title suggests, addresses anxiety. The emotional cycle of “Brutalism” closes with “Blip of Joy,” where Pierce says, “With one kiss, I forget that I hate myself.”

In that same Stereogum interview, Pierce suggested that there’s something conservative about the conventional rock band format. The indie pop direction of “Brutalism” has become very familiar in the long trail of The Postal Service. But it isn’t entirely electronic. Pierce’s bass playing is surprisingly funky, although it sounds closer to British post-punk bands imitating Chic than Chic themselves. “Loner” uses programmed breakbeats. The album deploys electric guitar sparingly. The title track ventures into dream pop, with Pierce going back to the band’s earliest surf-rock references and cranking up the tremolo. Pierce overdubs his own voice throughout to sing harmonies with himself.

If Pierce intended to use “Brutalism” to tell the story of his return to mental health, his lyrics don’t tell a straightforward tale of recovery and happiness. They’re soaked in bile, which is most obvious on “626 Bedford Avenue.” He doesn’t come across as the most likeable narrator. The Drums have frequently been compared to The Smiths, and Morrissey’s tendencies toward self-pity and spite have a parallel in their music. The title track’s description of Pierce stretching a lover’s T-shirt over his face when he’s not around is creepy. But the song is about the need to recognize the unpleasant aspects of passionate love instead of making it sound like a perpetual walk in the park. Alluding to Joy Division, Pierce sings, “Desire might be the thing that tears us apart.”

On the surface, “Brutalism” is a fun listen. Paying attention to its lyrics reveals a great deal of turbulence. The Drums have always drawn on a range of musical references from the past. But there’s a very personal quality to the album. It assumes that the listener will engage with Pierce’s emotional struggle. The electronic pop sound and ‘80s influences of “Brutalism” are pretty familiar, but the story it tells is specific.

THE DRUMS |“Brutalism” | Anti- Records | anti.com

Updated 9:10 am, April 10, 2019
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