To love The Drums is to love contradictions. They sing morose lyrics over bouncing, shimmering, reverb-heavy guitar notes; they describe themselves as “losers,” but they’re far too skilled at their moody, muscled guitar pop for that label to stick. In the past, they’ve drawn (accurate) comparisons to ’80s alternative rock and indie pop giants like The Smiths and New Order, and they haven’t strayed too far away from those influences on their newest effort, Encyclopedia. Lest people accuse them of becoming too comfortable, though, they’ve turned everything up to 11 this time around, just in case anyone, anywhere, couldn’t hear them.
Sad lyrics, even faster guitar strumming, more distortion, more tambourine — it’s all here. Just like Morrissey in the old days, The Drums are at their most fruitful and prolific when they’ve got something to be sad about. Following the international tour for their well-received 2011 album, Portamento, Connor Hanwick split, leaving the other two founding members, Jonny Pierce and Jacob Graham, to try to forge something from the wreckage. Despite rumors of several near-breakups, Encyclopedia, inasmuch as it is about any one thing, is about somehow soldiering on in the face of trepidation and fear.
There are many slices of pop perfection here, and despite bleak song titles like “There Is Nothing Left”, Pierce and Graham bring a kind of adolescent immediacy to setbacks and disappointment. After all, who, after having their heart broken for the very first time, didn’t take a step back for just a second and marvel at the fact that they were even capable of feeling that much? Over a bombastic ’80s drumbeat, cooing backing vocals, and synth flourishes on “There Is Nothing Left”, Pierce sings, “I thought we were important, but we don’t matter at all, at all.” This is the kind of existential crisis that’s typical both of this album and of the Drums’ body of work as a whole. “I wanted to love you, but in my heart there is nothing left,” he concludes.
Despite the dour nature of lyrics like these, Encyclopedia is never hard on the ears for even a second. There are moments, however, that seem cut-and-dry, standard issue. But things start getting weirder and even darker in the latter half of Encyclopedia. The sci-fi soundtrack intro to “Bell Labs” stands out in its simplicity, a stark contrast to the sometimes chaotic synth-vocals-reverb-drums layering of the album’s earlier tracks. “Wild Geese”, the closer, is mellow and comparatively stripped-down, punctuated by whistles and a meandering, laid-back bass line.
Reworking a well-established, well-loved genre is always a tricky business, since the key lies in striking a balance between all of the elements that fans already know and love (in this case, up-tempo melodies, swift, hard-hitting beats, and lots of synth) and finding a way to put a unique watermark on it. “I Can’t Pretend”, the album’s second single, particularly sounds like at least three different songs I’ve heard in the last year or so. (Almost anything from Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin’s 2013 Fly by Wire comes to mind.) This isn’t bad, necessarily, but it sometimes feels too lived-in, too comfortable — after a while, sadness can become easy. In frequent moments on the album, I want the Drums to be a little more angry and a little less mopey, or unrepentant instead of regretful.
Despite the occasionally rote nature of Encyclopedia, you can never doubt for a second that the emotions underpinning every word and every note are genuine. There’s no question that The Drums have mastered the synthpop game; what would be the most interesting now would be to watch them push the boundaries a little and transcend it.
Key tracks: “There Is Nothing Left”, “I Can’t Pretend”, and “Bell Labs”