The phrase “love it or hate it” rarely is a true generalization. If you are speaking of a movie or album, love it or hate it means there are two correct ways to interpret the quality of the piece, with both holding some merit, and does not really connote any amount of enthusiasm, which love and hate usually should. You could say “think it is good or think it could be better” and mean essentially the same thing, but without some of the dramatic urgency. So what am I getting at? No, I don’t think The Drums is a love it or hate it record. But the parallel I draw in is how you take the full-length debut, because this is a record that greatly depends on what you believe the intent is. There are two ways to look at it, and it affects your opinion of the record, big time.
The Drums, from Brooklyn, may be offering a debut LP, but this is not their first time buying vintage stage clothes, as singer Jonathan Pierce is a veteran of the scene, formerly fronting the similar but grander bands Goat Explosion and Elkland (yeah, I know they were the same band, but I was trying not to confuse you all with egregious history, but well, too late). After the disbanding of the latter, The Drums began with a less arena-ready, more CMJ aesthetic, realizing that though their sound may be able to fill an arena, and their name never would. So here The Drums are, having garnered a significant amount of buzz from a quite good EP, from which “Let’s Go Surfing!” and “Down By The Water” are taken. And based on the album alone, with no understanding of who they are, it is a successful and fun record of goofy takes on an alternate reality Morrissey in which he turned the gloom way up and the British way down.
This was my initial reaction and it’s the kind of record I can play over and over and still find interesting little quirks, but I made the mistake of watching a YouTube of the band. This is how a 3.5 review becomes a 4.5 review. Now, it’s not customary for us to put YouTube clips in the body of album reviews, but check out this clip of The Drums performing “Best Friend”. Keep in mind this is the first song on the album, and with its first line being “You’re my best friend, but then you died,” sung with a calm, matter-of-fact nature that implies silliness, sort of a one-upping of Morrisseys jangly tunes about tragedy, like “Girlfriend In A Coma”. It made me laugh when I heard it on the album, kind of like the music equivalent of the Snuggle bear. Then I watched this clip:
Is it just me or does he not really seem to be joking? Despite their ridiculous dance moves and priceless look, they seem to take themselves (relatively) seriously. This video caused a series of reactions on my part. I read every interview I could find for some sense of irony or even acknowledgment that the music is silly. Nope, not at all. In fact they are convinced there is too much experimentation going on right now and want to bring music back to the girl groups, to The Smiths, to pop warmth, to the fucking eighties. It’s not even nostalgia music, it’s a reinvention of the kind of music nostalgia exists for. The songs are still as infectious, but now you can listen to them as sincere artistic creations and not goofs. This way of listening, though it doesn’t garner the laughs of my initial runs, unveils The Drums to be a masterpiece of pop majesty. Not only is it one of the best records you will hear this year, it should fit on the shelf next to all the music that inspired it, whether that be Meat Is Murder, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me or Rio.
Now, I don’t usually like to comment on previously released songs, but a quick word on “Let’s Go Surfing!”: this is the ultimate statement on the band in that it isn’t a statement at all. Though it sounds a lot like “Obama, I want to go surfing,” the truth seems to be that there is no political commentary here, no meta-critique on the beach rock of the west coast, and no thesis on the direction of the band. No, Pierce just wrote a pop song about surfing. That’s it. Can your soul take pop music for pop music’s sake? Well then, beware.
Because “Forever And Ever Amen” is pop royalty. As is “Me And The Moon”. And, where the world wants to be ironic, I want to believe in lyrics that begin with “wake up, it’s a beautiful morning.” Sure, it’s easy to imagine Pierce’s beautiful morning covered in glitter and tracers, but either way, beautiful mornings don’t have to be ironic. He really doesn’t care about anything besides going surfing in that songs straight to the point chorus. On the album’s best track, Forever And Ever Amen, love has never been so simply stated as “it’s forever”, not needing metaphor, simile or any of that figurative bullshit to muck up the sentiment. On another old one, “Down by the Water”, Pierce makes it clear that he will be the lover who stays when no one else does; peaking with the line “You’ve got to believe me when I say the word forever.” Jesus, man, I do. Strangely, unexpectedly and perhaps naively, I really do.
I wonder if you think I am joking, that I couldn’t really be buying in to this joke of a record. But, I am serious when I say best pop album of the year. Possibly the last couple of years. Where The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and Wild Nothing have made similar, excellent records that evoke the music this album is clearly in debt to, they always do so with a catch. Whether it is nostalgia or memory, there is safety in saying you were influenced by something but still keeping your distance from your source. The Drums are all or nothing, love it or hate it. But in my case it was like it a lot or love it to death. And I’m leaning towards love it. It might be the best album of the year.