Everything I’m going to write about A Thing Called Divine Fits is a cheat, as was that line. I lifted it from NPR’s Marc Hirsh, who recently confessed that his critical eye turns blind to his favorite artist, Sam Phillips. Lacking any angle to describe Divine Fits other than “It might be the most fortuitous musical pairing in recent history” or an ill-advised Tweet (“having a divine fit to divine fits”), I turned to analogies. I Love You Man, Olympic finalists, The Bee Gees. I should also probably admit that “pseupergroup” may or may not be jotted down in my serious-looking journalist’s notebook. But I knew, as Hirsh wrote and would probably say to me, that any and all of those “would be the sound of desperate flailing on my part.”
Dan Boeckner, formerly of Handsome Furs and Wolf Parade, Spoon’s Britt Daniel, and New Bomb Turks’ Sam Brown (not to mention keyboardist Alex Fischel) worked hard for that indescribable wow, and I would be doing a disservice to compartmentalize Divine Fits into some half-baked pun or tangential pop culture reference. The only person who could reduce Divine Fits to a plausible sound bite might be Brown: ”There’s songs on the record that sound like a Dan Boeckner song. And there’s songs that sound like a Britt Daniel song. But then there’s songs that kind of meet in the middle.” That’s closer to the album’s fundamental truth than what I had, but it’s still not entirely true.
A Thing Called Divine Fits owes an occasional libelous debt to Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga‘s post-punk lockstep (“The Salton Sea” is to “The Ghost of You Lingers” as “Ice Ice Baby” is to “Under Pressure”, with caveats) and Handsome Furs’ vampiric focus on the love organ — “black heart,” “heart on its knees,” “searching for your heart,” “my heart was beating,” and so on — but Divine Fits is more than the sum of its rangy, resplendent leading men; at least in some part because Daniel must have realized he had to do something pretty fuckin’ awesome to pull his friend Dan out of sordid piles of his other bands. “Hanging out with Britt and working on this record, that’s what I had to hang on to,” Boeckner said. “I don’t really know what I would have done if I hadn’t been making this record.”
Allegedly the first song Brown heard that Boeckner and Daniel wrote together, ”What Gets You Alone” is Boeckner hanging on by his fingernails. Atonal chords in the weird place between a whine and a growl shadowbox a speeding rhythm that almost hides Boeckner’s retreat into blackout honesty: “I feel low/ Hanging in the elevator/ Take me home/ ‘Cause my love is lost.” Halfway through, the track drops out and violins swell like a few stoic tears as he sings, “My — my — my — my — my — my — my — heart’s a mess/ Heart’s a mess,” unable to move on before Daniel joins him on backing vocals, picking him up and pushing him toward the open taxi door that’ll take him home. “Would that not be nice?” he asks on the next, lighthearted (maracas!) track of the same name. Don’t worry, man, just “come on home/ I’ll be here waiting.”
And he does wait, letting Boeckner propel “Baby Get Worse” before taking over vocals three-fourths of the way through, first by himself and then joined by his bandmate, who seems to have recovered from his emotional hangover with glib lines like, “We hit the city, but the city don’t mind.” By disarming and somewhat charming contrast, Daniel’s frayed rasp sounds out of its element in a track that’s pretty clearly cut from Sound Kapital cloth. After Boeckner made himself so vulnerable on “What Gets You Alone”, it’s only fitting that Daniel would stick his neck out on a track that Handsome Furs might have written. He steps off the mic for the loosely industrial floor jam “For Your Heart”, ghosting with jet-engine fades as Boeckner shakes his fist at the woman in the dark who wronged him.
Jessica, Cleopatra, “baby,” “my girl,” feminine proper nouns — women are all over A Thing Called Divine Fits, but at its many hearts the record celebrates “a very brotherly” relationship. In the insistent “Civilian Stripes”, Boeckner and Daniel wonder, “Is it really good, the quiet life?” over an acoustic guitar and a piano stripped from the exceptional bone structure of “My Love Is Real” and the sardonic, stiff-legged “Flaggin’ A Ride”. It’s also a far cry from Daniel’s bloodcurdling “DOWN MY SP-I-I-I-NE!” chorus to “Shivers”, rendering Nick Cave’s original vibrato into excess fat. Once they’ve eviscerated enough covers and avenged their broken hearts, maybe Divine Fits will settle down with their ice cream and discover that the quiet life is better. But really, let’s hope not.
Essential Tracks: “What Gets You Alone”, “Baby Get Worse”, and “Shivers”