Not to overemphasize labels, but whenever I hear Warpaint described as “dream pop” I am slightly taken aback. True, the band has a ghostly aura and uses a lot of reverb, suggesting an affinity for the spirit realm, but there is something about them that is quite physical as well, far too physical for dream pop. Warpaint’s music is raw, somewhat wild and unkempt, almost vicious at times and they sound like women who have been exiled for years in the wilderness. Or, with absolutely no offense intended, they are akin to fungi, the decomposers of the natural world. Their sound is rooted in the material realm, but the vessels they inhabit are decayed, rotting, breaking down, the spirit half-departed already. It is this duality between the otherworldly and the grossly corporeal that lends Warpaint their macabre, compelling sound, and that makes them so engaging to listen to.
There is also, of course, their knack for insistent, addictive hooks. Often the band has buried their gifts for melody under layers of grit, worming their way into the listener’s ear concealed in shadows. However, “New Song”, the lead single from Warpaint’s third album Heads Up, puts its skill on full display, and is not ashamed to flaunt its pop brilliance for all to see. Perhaps intentionally, it’s the spiritual opposite of their previous lead single “Love Is to Die”, from 2014’s Warpaint. If the spirit was then on the verge of giving up hope and at last departing the body for good, here is a faint sound beckoning their return, summoning them back to life. The “new”-ness is important: it is as if the band members were vampires who had existed for ages and thought they’d seen all there was to see, only to rejoice at finding that they were wrong. The song is brighter and tighter-knit than anything the band has done to date, and rivals Haim in its embrace of canny fusion-pop.
“New Song”, like all Warpaint lead singles thus far, rests in the third slot on the track list, after Heads Up has already had time to establish its core sound, which is not as sugary overall. The other five songs on the album’s first half reside in roughly the same sonic territory as one another: they tend to begin with sparse drum programming, and then layer on a driving bass groove, embellishments of guitar, and occasional electronic flourishes. It approaches deconstructed funk-rock as often as punchy post-punk.
Despite some slight stylistic differences, these five tracks share a common sense of optimism with “New Song”. On “Don’t Wanna”, Emily Kokal asks, “Why’s the story gotta be about being sad?” It’s here that Warpaint take one of the biggest and most treacherous risks in rock music: sounding happy and well-adjusted on record. One answer to the question from “Don’t Wanna”, after all, is that sadness is way more interesting than happiness, and a person can only listen to so many contented songs before becoming bored and maybe a bit resentful. Fortunately, while Warpaint communicate an unexpected sense of contentment on Heads Up (which, perhaps not coincidentally, only seems to be something bands do at least several albums into their career), they bypass most of the risks and pitfalls of this approach by eschewing emotional singularity and ensuring that shreds of darkness persist on each track, musically if not always lyrically.
It’s interesting to learn that the band members composed much of the album apart from one another, often working independently or in pairs with producer Jake Bercovici. This is striking because the album’s first half has the relaxed, low-key feel of a communal jam session, albeit one that could conceivably have been conducted in the re-appropriated space of a decrepit and long-abandoned Victorian house. “So Good”, one of the album’s highlights, allows itself to sprawl out over six winding minutes, sounding simultaneously epic and easy. The relaxed, loose air is all subterfuge, though, shrewdly concealing a sharp adeptness at songwriting and craft.
When “Don’t Let Go” arrives at track seven, however, things start to spin off their axis. Haunting acoustic guitars appear for the first time, drums well up and nearly overtake the song, rejecting their previous position as mere foundation. The song would be striking regardless, but taken in context, this mid-tempo number becomes positively arresting. It then ushers in the album’s nearly perfect second half, where Heads Up breaks free from its solid encasing and becomes loftier, more dramatic, more versatile and adventurous. On “Dre”, which follows Warpaint‘s “Biggie” as another unlikely tribute to an iconic rapper, drummer Stella Mozgawa continues her ascent into prominence, burying the rest of the track in a slow motion, muffled avalanche of sound. The title track meanwhile begins with somber, echoing piano that sounds like something exhumed from a dusty, forgotten catacomb, before suddenly plunging into a pulsating collage of funk, rock, post-punk, and even disco.
Acoustic guitars appear again to conclude the album on “Today Dear”, a forlorn shard of haunted folk that will appeal to those who liked “Billie Holiday”. Here Warpaint lower their shields and at last stand before the listener in a rare moment of total vulnerability. It is here we learn that the contentment alluded to elsewhere on the album was not easily won: “I saw my blood drawn out, saw my flood run dry / I have no fear, my dear / Today, no moment will pass me by,” Kokal whispers chillingly. The song sounds ancient, as though sung by the exhausted wind and the trees themselves. It is the album’s loveliest moment.
With Heads Up, Warpaint may have crafted their best album yet, one that adroitly harnesses and alchemizes genres, moods, and sounds to suit their many purposes. Perhaps the fungi metaphor is no longer apt after all as here, they have created something complex, intricate, and organic, a work that has its own life and its own imagination. At 52 minutes, it is no longer than your standard album, and yet it has seemingly bottomless depths and wide-open horizons that reward the listener with the possibilities of unending exploration. The fact that it can never be fully known makes it all the more revelatory.
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