The most surprising thing about Carrier is that it’s surprising at all. The Dodos have never been notorious shape-shifters. They mastered their craft back in 2008 with the disobedient, frenetic folk record Visiter, and since then they’ve been touching up elements of their sound — going electric, but going it unnoticed — while editing down its excess. You’d have to go back then, when there was something fresh in what’s now old-fashioned, to be shocked: Logan Kroeber’s defeating, unrelenting drumming felt unprecedented, if impossible to compare (recall the nothing descriptions of “freak folk”, as if he was doing Panda Bear, but louder) and Meric Long’s exuberant guitar strumming complemented his stories, whether he was devising mischief or feeling tragically homely. Visiter, long and traversing as it was, also had internal surprises. “Undeclared” saw Long act out two sides of an unrequited lover’s quarrel, moving from his gentle croon to an octave higher. That’s been left behind now, the mere remnants of a more experimental Dodos — watch a video of Long trying to perform it and he’ll try to hit the highs, but he’ll struggle. As time went on, the duo knew what was ingrained in their DNA, and became devoted to it.
Carrier is surprising for its change of pace. Instead of a breakneck album that rips past the specifics of their shittier feelings, the Dodos make one that handles itself slowly and introspectively. Introspection is etched into the album. One song is called “Death”, and Long and Kroeber face it indirectly. “Stranger”, another, finds the title self-describing. “Transformer” begins the album as if Long is watching the sun rise from his cell, trying to escape into his head. An oppressing, repeating guitar riff locks the song in, only broken free of on fleeting, deflating choruses. “Transformer” can’t escape its questions though, and so Carrier goes. It seems to exist in Long’s head, inquisitive in its nature rather than subdued (a word that might find itself adjacent to Carrier, but one that doesn’t capture the existential dialogue Long opens up). These songs aren’t by a passive man, but rather one who’s morosely rejuvenated, asking questions like am I invisible (“As a stranger, do you see me?”), or saying simple things that become more complicated aloud (“What is real?”). The most fascinating thing about Carrier, aside from its disturbingly appealing minor key, is how it finds a confident songwriter flushed with uncertainty.
Long expressed a debt to Women’s late Chris Reimer for the songs on Carrier, and his ex-bandmate’s influence shows up in unexpected ways, working to straighten out the band’s twitchy, percussive coercion. Reimer’s guitar style set a continuous groove through the least tangible moments of 2010’s grainy classic, Public Strain, becoming the voice you listened to when nothing else would interact. You might complain that you’d need a lyrics sheet to know what the self-obscuring Women were about — they never supplied one — but Reimer’s guitar spoke an intricate language. Long has taken notes on the value of such melodic conversation, using a song’s stemming guitar phrase as an undercurrent to stabilize it. The Dodos’ songs tend to a general pattern, which reached breaking point on the fragmented No Color: loop, stutter, halt. On Carrier, that middle sequence gets cut in favour of songs that cling to their roots and grow from them. Long and Kroeber unpack their burdens on “Substance” in one long burst, its thrashing instrumental bridge held in place by a pre-established, humming guitar riff. They handover to a gorgeous acoustic outro, lifting from Long’s motif to give a feeling of continuous and unresolved desperation; like one of Reimer’s riffs, it continues, out of scene. Then you rewind it.
The questions on Carrier exist in songs that sound whole and seamless, and ongoing beyond their days. No Color often looped back on itself dramatically, its songs purposefully imprecise in their scene changes. It was like a moment was missing from “Going Under”, a mountain-cum-canyon song split into two gentle acoustic segments, one walking up to the other before Kroeber tore into both. “Confidence” is the same song with the story of how it got there. Instead of an abrupt change, it rolls patiently into its turbulent freak-out, Long exchanging distorted jamming with Kroeber’s most offensive drumming of the entire album, but only after a gentle, encouraging segue. Carrier moves as if its fears and tribulations never let up, and so there’s always something festering below. “Stranger” recurs around the crunching chords of its chorus and a singular drumbeat that brushes by its choruses. But Kroeber’s performance around them is accentuated with little dramas — a rumble here and there within the constant backdrop — that make the song feel as if it’s never coming back. Moments here and there might deceive you — the return to the same sparse, knotty acoustic riffing of “Death” feels hypnotic, especially because of the space it bounces off — but Carrier is always going forward.
Carrier is shocking in its own context. By the Dodos’ standards, it’s an album with a dark, enveloping tone rare to their discography, one that’s certainly never wormed its way into more than a few songs. They’ve made sad music before, but on ukuleles, or with impressive distractions like Long’s octave maneuver. Carrier, though, is like listening to a whole album of “God?”, a song that awoke in thrall of a never-answered question: “Oh god, where’d you go?” Carrier dichotomizes that inquiry — first philosophical and generous, and then desperate — with a sound Long and Kroeber have so long used for the nostalgia of naive adventures and seasonal love stories. When Long gets his answers, they end in the red, even if he has to rewrite them: “Success, success is failure.” Carrier doesn’t have anything to rekindle, and so you forget you’re listening to a Dodos album at all: it doesn’t feel warm, or involving, or fun. But it does feel special.