At their very best, Brooklyn’s the Damnwells are the Replacements. At their worst, they’re the Goo Goo Dolls. Unfortunately, they are more often the latter. Sporting a no-nonsense, bass-drums-guitar Americana sound, the Damnwells are just about as bland as a band can get, which might be a good indication as to why their debut album leaves you feeling completely uninspired.
The biggest problem with the Damnwells is Alex Dezen’s ridiculously vague, lazy and just plain terrible lyrics. Here’s a typical verse: “When you gonna stay the same / Not till I’ve gone away / When you gonna take the blame / Oh when your love has strayed.” Those are the opening lines to “The Lost Complaint”, but it could be any song on Bastards of the Beat. Take the chorus to the aptly-titled “Kiss Catastrophe”, for instance: “So give it back to me / Will you be mine while the winners sleep / So give it up, give it back to me / Open wide kiss catastrophe”. That’s the chorus. I won’t even reveal the verses.
These are just a few examples of Dezen’s laziness, however. Where the singer really offends is when his writing isn’t just lazy, but downright awful. Let’s take a look at the promising opening to “I Will Keep the Bad Things from You” (ignore the preposterously sophomoric song title for a moment): “I will keep the bad things from you / I will keep a straight face honey / You can keep your last name if you want to / And I will give you all my money.” Alright, not good by any means, but it looks as if Dezen is building a simple but earnest love song in the tradition of Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love”. However, trouble lurks. By the next verse, Dezen starts falling into old traps, and soon enough he’s singing, “Catch it while you can / It’s the feel good hit of the summer / Catch it while you can / ‘Cause there won’t be another.” What the hell is that supposed to mean? It gets worse, though. By song’s end, Dezen has completely lost any remaining thread to a coherent song as he sings in an unwaveringly earnest voice, “I will be your dad and mother / I will give you older brothers / I will feed you fries with steak sauce / I will keep the price below cost.”
I’m not making any of this up.
Now let me explain that there is nothing inherently wrong with vague lyrics. Michael Stipe perfected the art back in the early days of R.E.M., but the difference is that Stipe’s vague and oftentimes indecipherable lyrics were aided by two very important things. Firstly, they had accompanying music and melody that were absolutely first-class. And second, Stipe’s lyrics, though ambiguous, were filled with beautifully vivid imagery and imagination. Dezen’s lyrics on the other hand, could have been written by a 12-year-old who has just listened to his first Roxette album. Dezen is a songwriter with presumably nothing to say, his lyrics acting only as transport for mediocre melodies.
So, you could understand that at this point I’m content to write the Damnwells off as a completely worthless bar band that never should have released recorded material, let alone published Dezen’s laughably banal lyrics when, out of nowhere, comes the impossibly lovely “Sleepsinging”. A slow-building, smoldering masterpiece of dramatic pop agony, “Sleepsinging” methodically transforms itself into an absolutely majestic piece of Ryan Adams-style longing. Dezen’s lyrics are still pretty bland, but they are at least not awful (the song is apparently about the record industry, but it could just as easily be about a girl, or addiction, or any number of things. Like I said, it’s vague).
Just as soon as “Sleepsinging” sadly comes to its inevitable conclusion, however, comes “The Sound”, a musically adept piece of roll-down-the-windows-and-belt-one-out pop rock that is rendered completely mediocre by Dezen’s dreadful lyrics. Noticing a trend here? Right when you’re bopping along to the catchy chorus you realize you are singing some of the most forgetable lines that you will ever hear. “I will go back to the sound / With good luck / If you keep the backbeat down / With good luck.”
Good luck. Right. The Damnwells are gonna need it.