Reflected in the titles of his albums and globetrotting songs – and even the stage name Dirty Beaches – is the strong sense of place and atmosphere Alex Zhang Hungtai evokes in his music, conjuring up visions of paradise after the fall as a setting for his snapshots of love gone wrong and bad. Born in Taipei, growing up in Honolulu and Canada, recording in Montreal and Berlin, Hungtai seems most at home when he’s not at home, a feeling that definitely stood out on Dirty Beaches’ striking debut Badlands, which worked like a mixtape of reconstructed old-timey rock ‘n’ roll for a road trip to an alternate reality. On the ambitious, enigmatic double EP Drifters/Love Is the Devil, Hungtai has swapped out the open road for a more urban backdrop with an ominous experimental sound that’s coated in the scuzz and grime of big city streets. Hungtai is still a vagabond who’s running from himself even as he tries to find himself, it’s just that, this time, he’s seeking solace in dive bars, after-hours clubs, and generally anywhere a rebel with a cause like him can get into trouble with the wrong look to the wrong guy or the right one to the wrong girl.
So while the music still gives you the sense that Hungtai is up to no good, there’s an obvious shift in ambiance and tone right from the start on Drifters, its seedy discotheque vibe bearing few traces of the more rock-centric approach of Badlands. Of the two eight-piece mini-albums, Drifters is the more approachable – though that’s only relatively speaking – as Hungtai’s scarred, hushed vocals wind their way through simmering low-budget electronics. Dark techno-pop at its most primal and raw, opening tracks “Night Walk” and “I Dream in Neon” are street tough numbers, strutting along to programmed beats and effects-heavy rhythmic elements. In particular, “I Dream in Neon” makes the most of the lo-fi, on-the-cheap electro sound Dirty Beaches are going for this time out, with a synth loop that almost seems like it was ripped from “Tainted Love”, then mucked up in fuzz. On “Casino Lisboa”, the down-and-dirty groove that the early part of Drifters rides on turns more sinister, as Hungtai mutters menacingly about neon lights, posing like he’s hardened, only to have the agitated tenor of the music betray that he’s not quite at that point where he’s got nothing to lose.
The tense build-up and unsettling mood music of Drifters can make you wish there was a little more there there, though, especially when the almost 10-minute “Mirage Hall” drones on with only a snappy drum program keeping you going. Indeed, it’s ultimately the more viscerally engaging and direct moments that spell out what all the tormented atmospherics and subterranean frequencies are getting at, as Hungtai’s most prominent vocal turns sink deeper into his chaotic psyche. The most straightforward and melodically memorable number on both EPs, “Elli” finds Hungtai playing a nervewracked voyeur, though he’s really just spying on himself, as his internal monologue asks his object of attention, “Elli, Elli, what do you see? / What do you see about me?,” as ping-ponging synth effects raise the stakes and blood pressure here. Instead of coming off as obsessively desperate as he does on “Elli”, “Au Revoir Mon Visage” turns out to be more harrowing in its unflinching self-examination, as a threatening beat accompanies Hungtai’s soul searching when he howls the title line, which translates to “Goodbye to my face.” Since much of Drifters keeps you on edge without finding a release, there’s something to be said for coming to a resolution as Hungtai does on “Au Revoir Mon Visage”, even when it’s a troubling, disquieting one.
Not just a case of semantics, the unorthodox double-EP structure does make it a little easier to digest and absorb the pitch-black material, introducing a built-in intermission to catch your breath because a continuous 16-track album would be hard to follow all the way through. As it is, Love Is the Devil is a little slower in developing and would’ve been more so coming off Drifters’ wispy closer “Landscapes in the Mist”. Instead, the format ends up giving each recording its own distinct identity: If Drifters is about Hungtai getting himself into bad predicaments, Love Is the Devil feels like the calm in the aftermath, as he regroups and comes to terms with where he’s at.
In turn, Love Is the Devil ends up being the more engrossing of the pair with the higher highs and the bigger payoff, even if it’s more abstract and deliberate. So while it’s almost entirely instrumental, Love Is the Devil gets to the heart of the matter more powerfully on its most affecting compositions with a depleted yet hungry sentimentality. The first few pieces on Love Is the Devil emphasize a sense of searching disorientation, as with the woozy, meandering jazz-like tones of “Greyhound at Night” and the eerie “This Is Not My City”, which reflects the title’s idea of dislocation as loosely connected minor-key notes are banged against a minimalist background. With its off-key strings, the title track makes more gestures at the wistful melodramatics that Love Is the Devil ultimately rises to, though it doesn’t quite overwhelm you the same way the EP’s best soundscapes do.
That’s just what happens when Love Is the Devil hits its emotional peak on a three-song stretch that feels all the more compelling because it made you wait patiently to get there. It’s on “Alone at the Danube River” that Dirty Beaches strike the perfect balance between distance and yearning, as if Hungtai figures out a way that experimental music can be emo. Built around a lonely looped guitar playing a line that uncannily recalls the melody from “The Way We Were”, “Danube” would feel coldly alienated if it didn’t try to tug at whatever heartstrings you have left with a pronounced swelling of feeling that only those who’ve loved and lost as acutely as Hungtai has can convey. And that’s before “Danube” finds catharsis as it reaches its denouement, when an oddly lucid synth sound comes through as clear as a light at the end of the tunnel, a rare non-lo-fi moment that shines through the static. Somehow, “I Don’t Know How to Find My Way Back to You” feels almost as dramatic despite Hungtai’s minimalist bent on it, as the keyboards ring like an angelic choir, while “Like the Ocean We Part” evokes a spare spirituality that brings to mind the still intensity of early slo-core Low, of all things. Like a hit parade transmitted by a jukebox from another dimension, Hungtai’s disaffection comes through even more poignantly on these tracks, as if the loss of feeling only makes his desire stronger.
Journeys like those that Hungtai goes on here are never easy on the artist or, for that matter, the listener, but, then again, the whole point of Dirty Beaches’ music is to explore paths that are harder to travel. Yet as tough sledding as Drifters/Love Is the Devil can be both psychically and musically, there are enough moments of enlightenment that make you more than willing to follow Hungtai wherever he goes, especially when you notice the final number on the collection, “Berlin”, lift just so slightly to close on an unexpectedly triumphant note. It’s a fitting way to end this set of existential wanderings and perhaps to start the next, as Dirty Beaches prove over and again that running away from one thing leads to looking for something else.
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