[17 March 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Kevin Drew’s last solo record, Spirit If… was preceded by a “Broken Social Scene Presents:” before its title. It was an easy way, one might suppose, to remind people that Drew is the frontman for Broken Social Scene, although other band member Brendan Canning got the same treatment on his first solo record. So it was as if those albums were still tied to the main band. Not secondary perhaps, but certainly not entirely solo either, especially considering the many Broken Social Scene players that popped up on record.
That “Broken Social Scene Presents:” is nowhere to be found on Drew’s new record, Darlings, and the sound of the record is a marked split from the washed-out fuzz and heavy reliance on guitars of Spirit If…. In its place seems to be a much more personal, solitary statement, a true stepping out for Drew as a solo performer and songwriter. So it makes sense that Drew’s voice is clear and high in the mix here, the songs behind him lush and building, subtle enough that we focus not solely on layers of sound but also on what Drew has to say.
If the sonic shift marks a break from what we expect, some of what Drew has to say does not. He is still fascinated in song by sex in all its physicality, but he manages to use the physical to get somewhere more complicated. It’s a tall order to start your album with songs called “Body Butter” and “Good Sex”. It’s also tough to start that opening song with “Get the body butter baby, let’s go party all alone,” and yet the song works its way to somewhere aching and personal, not tawdry. “Good Sex” is the lead single from the album and has a video with plenty of good looking couples in all manner of undress and, well, coupling. And yet the song feels bittersweet, hung up on the act perhaps but more interesting in what’s brimming under the surface.
In fact, Darlings on the whole seems to create surfaces only to dig under them or at them to reveal something deeper. Many of these songs rely on repeating phrases over and over again, and the meaning changes as Drew keeps saying it. On “Body Butter”, Drew pines “you wore my hands out”, and the song goes from the sweet exhaustion of the moment to a more troubling, longview metaphor. “Good Sex” goes from assertion of experience to yearning for a perhaps impossible ideal. Drew takes on a Nick Cave-esque cadence on “Mexican Aftershow Party”, which is fitting as the narrative moves from harmlessly seedy to desperate. The album revels in these repeated lines, sometimes for the sheer beauty of a phrase, but also because the veneer gets stripped away, and Darlings often moves from the dream to a much starker reality.
The music helps keep this reality subtle and makes it wash over you by degrees. One of the real successes of the album is its ability to use spare elements to create something lush. Many of these songs give little more than some bass and keys or distant guitar between Drew and spare percussion, but the space these elements give each other make the whole sound much larger than any one part. “First In Line” blooms on the rippling rise and fall of guitars that give way to squealing keyboards. Closer “And That’s All I Know” is a haunting echo, crowded by ringing pianos that spread over a skittering drum machine. There’s a stillness, a hush over all of these songs, though “Bullshit Ballad” breaks up that formula nicely with slashing guitar hooks.
It’s a welcome shift because sometimes the subtlety of sound on Darlings ends up being a limitation. There’s not a moment on here that isn’t carefully constructed and sweet sounding. Drew’s voice is rangy and surprising, but often he relies on a whisper so soft you may have to lean into the speakers no matter how high you turn them. “It’s Cool” feels too laid back, gliding along and sapping any ironic tension out of that title. Elsewhere “My God” sounds like Drew plopping down on a 16-bit dock of the bay, but the bittersweet exhaustion that fuels the great early songs of the record just feels tired as he groans through line after line and the music never moves its odd textures forward. It’s in these moments that the smooth, quiet nature of the music gets too slick to get a hold of, when the intimate hush becomes distancing, when the secretive tension of the record slips into slack. The best parts of Darlings make you work, as Drew does, to peel back the surface and dig into what’s there but some of it just leaves us with quiet, impenetrably sweet sounds that repetition can’t quite crack through.