On their debut album (2011’s It’s a Corporate World), Detroit electro-pop duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. showed us their strong suit: taking ever-present, convoluted social ideas and ideals and deconstructing them with an open-ended wit that came off as purely thoughtful rather than misguidedly arrogant. The handful of dominant tracks had serious zing, but came off as unpretentious.
This time, with The Speed of Things, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. set their sights on our unforgivingly fast-paced society, where trends and feelings—both collective and personal—change with the wind. While sometimes the flow of the album feels as jumbled and neurotic as the concept, its end result is relatively cohesive, fueled by a cocktail of melancholy poetic delivery and dreamy yet sparkly grooves that have serious backbone. And, of course, there are gleaming moments of Motor City soul.
The sophomore slump is overanalyzed. In some cases, it’s a can’t-win battle. Sticking to the formula brings cries of redundancy or mediocrity, but throwing a left-field curveball confuses and polarizes (see MGMT’s Congratulations). Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott don’t stray too far from their lean, carefully-manufactured style with The Speed of Things, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s enough lyrical punch here to carry the album while constant change-of-pace musicianship keeps boredom at bay. At the same time, they do stay directly in their comfort zone. The record often sounds like it could have easily been the second disc if It’s a Corporate World was a double album. Is that points for it or against it? Well, it’s probably a little of both, since the ideas of their debut are, essentially, slightly and meticulously reconstructed, rather than kicking out a clean slate that rings with spur-of-the-moment brilliance and gut-feeling chance.
After coming out of the gate with the introspective “Beautiful Dream”, The Speed of Things picks up steam with “Run”, a satirical poke at excess and maybe the strongest thinking man’s pop track on the record. “He said, I’ve got a secret room where I can be myself with someone I’ve rented / He said, the only thing that really gets me off is paying for enough to feel pleasure,” the first verse relates, before changing perspectives during the second: “She was always buying things she had to have, but you’ll never see them / Because she got it all insured and keeps it locked in a safe behind the vanity mirror.” It’s surprising how much substance the duo packs into a song titled “If You Didn’t See Me (Then You Weren’t on the Dancefloor)”. Things slow down with the folksy “I Can’t Help It,” revolving around being “distracted by the little things that fall apart,” before diving into the album’s synth-pop gem “Hiding”. The second half of Speed brings a dreary reprise of “Beautiful Dream”, which leads to the infectious “Mesopotamia”. Epstein and Zott hit the finish line with two uncharacteristic drawn-out tracks, “A Haunting” and “War Zone”.
The Speed of Things is not a step backward, forward or sideways. But, if a sophomore record that pretty much gives us another taste of a damn fine debut means that progress is far away, I don’t buy it. There are clear flashes of brilliance here that convince me that Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is on the verge of something bigger.