The storyline so far in the media coverage of Escape From Evil, the third album by Baltimore’s Lower Dens, is that it’s a brighter, more optimistic, more “pop” album for a group whose previous albums built atmosphere upon atmosphere within songs that tilted from melancholy to annihilation. That narrative understandably comes partly from singer Jana Hunter’s own descriptions of the album, and from the synth-pop vibes of the lead single “To Die in L.A.”. But this notion is worth breaking down and analyzing in more detail.
The subtext of this storyline is that their previous two albums were dark, pessimistic and not as poppy. I’m not sure that entirely works for their first album Twin Hand Movement, with its waves of relatively “pretty” atmosphere, wit, and even humor. (It definitely wouldn’t apply to the wonderfully scattered solo albums Hunter released before forming the band.) But this notion may work for 2012’s Nootropics, an album that gets more morose as it proceeds from start to end, leaving you feeling like you’ve gone through some kind of apocalypse, unsure if you’ve survived, if you’re whole, or if you’re awake or asleep.
In that context, Escape From Evil can be seen as a coming back into the light, with a comparative brightness and lightness in sound. Yet “comparative” is an important word here. If one came to this album new to Lower Dens, would she hear it as bright and light in tone? Probably not. The atmosphere is thick and the lyrics are as heady as ever, even when the clouds have cleared. There’s an almost goth drama to Hunter’s singing with Lower Dens, even when the lyrics privilege tenderness over gloom.
That tenderness is a key difference here, and possibly what critics might be getting at if they describe Escape From Evil as more optimistic or pop in nature. It’s either that or the way each song starts off sounding like a pop hit from the ‘80s, when an isolated instrument or sound sets things off, before the rest kicks in and the bubblegum factor gets submerged by an all-encompassing wave of complicated feelings. The memory part of our brain is prodded into thinking we’re about to hear a hit radio song, and then something shifts on us. Gears aren’t changed; the mood is the same, but the pop sensibility gets less overt, and the feeling of being wrapped up in art-rock drama comes alive.
There’s a balance between climate and movement that, with some ‘80s pop/rock/post-punk guitar styles and Hunter’s dramatic singing style, recalls early Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the darker side of New Order and other Factory Records releases. But this also comes with wisps of immediacy that brings to mind even more radio-friendly material before dissipating.
Getting back to the tenderness, I’m not sure Lower Dens is a band where most listeners will immediately feel compelled to lean in close and listen to every word. If you asked me what the first two albums were “about,” I wouldn’t immediately have an answer, though I could immediately conjure up the basic feeling and elemental sound of their music. That’s partly the attention the overall sound and its instrumental components draw, and how everything—the pace, the guitars, her singing—comes together to present an involving front.
On Nootropics, the lyrics that leap out speak to environmental devastation, to feelings of absolute malaise. There are moments like that here, too, but also moments where the narrator is someone opening her arms, her heart, her mind to another person. On Escape From Evil, the first really sticky phrase is on the second track, “Ondine”: “I will treat you better.” Two songs later comes a tune where, after ruminating about our small role in the universe and the improbability of something working out perfectly, she sings, “I wanna be with you alone.”
That song (“Quo Vadis”) and the next, “Your Heart Still Beating”, are when the album starts to feel like a romantic one, when the darkness and bright cloaked in synths begin to recall the soft glow of streetlights that lovers walk under, instead of the sun about to burn out forever. Of course, in that song she also repeats the line “never again” and sings about fear, and you remember that if this is romance, it seems set to end in tragedy.
Whether the narrator is taking a stranger on an anonymous walk on a dark, thundery night (“Electric Current”) or encouraging someone to disappear with her forever (“Non Grata”), there’s a sense that no matter how beautiful, how strange, and how glorious life, love, songs or people can be, they are always filled with the potential to vanish completely in an instant—or burn up in some magnificent blaze.