It’s always futile to wish that a band would return to an old sound, but especially so in the Dears’ case. The group that made 2000’s secret classic End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story didn’t exist by the time the Dears started getting wider notice with 2003’s No City’s Left, let alone the lauded Gang of Losers from 2006. And now, that group doesn’t exist either – by the time Missiles was ready for release on new label Dangerbird Records, one way or another the band was back down to core duo Murray Lightburn and Natalia Yanchak. Sure, Lightburn and Yanchak have changed as the years have gone by, but no matter how ironclad a grip you keep on your band, the process of making music is still collaborative (unless you’re Steely Dan, bless ‘em) and as those collaborators have shifted over the years, so goes the Dears.
Missiles sounds as if whatever changeover the Dears have fought through had already happened. In many ways it’s a much more downbeat album than any the Dears have yet produced, although it never feels smaller in scale. It lacks the full-on sonic grandiosity of No Cities Left and the concise pop songcraft of Gang of Losers, but it’s still identifiably the same band. The press release this time out is calling them “orchestral dark-pop,” and if that description has always had some truth to it, this time it sums them up fully. There are no real explosions here, and Lightburn never stretches his voice as far into anguish as he did on a song like “Pinned Together, Falling Apart”, the overriding feeling is of determined sadness and not-quite-resignation. Stylistically, you could call it their In Rainbows. The best parts of Missiles are actually where the songs retreat most fully from the last few record’s insistence on, well, insistence, the fervency the band wielded like a torch. The slow-rolling saxophone murk and guitar twinkle of the opening “Disclaimer” is not just one of the best Dears songs of recent vintage but also among the darkest, Lightburn vowing “I can’t forget and I won’t forgive” even as his multi-tracked vocals repeat “come back” without much hope in them.
At first Missiles seems too uniform, with only the sweetly sung duet of “Money Babies” (the closest the band comes to achieving their old liftoff) really standing out from the sumptuous gloom. It doesn’t help that the Dears veer back towards overkill after the relative concision of their last album (for this type of music, ten songs in an hour is not the right ratio), but it only rarely backfires. The two longest tracks here, “Lights Off” and the closing “Saviour” both wear out their welcome (although good songs could be salvaged from either), especially when a children’s choir takes up Lightburn’s vocal line in the latter. But once you’ve steered your way around those two monoliths, the delayed combustion of the title track, the graceful reverie of “Berlin Heart” and the downcast crawl of “Meltdown in A Major” all distinguish themselves. If there’s nothing as immediate as “Lost in the Plot” or “Heartless Romantic” or “Ticket to Immortality”, there’s still plenty here to feast on. The way Yanchak’s vocals take centre stage (on the first half of “Crisis 1 & 2”) is a welcome development, and Lightburn remains one of the most compelling singers in the indie rock disapora.
Perversely enough, like a lot of transitional efforts Missiles works the best when it ranges the furthest from the band’s established sound without getting overly ambitious. Lightburn started writing these songs for a solo album and at one point began a press release with “This could have been a message saying that the Dears is over,” so the fact that we’ve received instead a sturdy but unexceptional (for this band) album is no small matter. There are promising signs here that the Dears version three (or four, or five, depending how you count them) have another classic in them, and even if this isn’t it it’s good to have them back.