Detroit trap-popsters tackle vicissitudes of love amid genre-weaving sophomore album.
Love, it’s a many splendored thing, isn’t it? Not in the world of Jamaican Queens. For the Detroit quartet of trap-popsters, love is a vicious, aching, impossible form of delusion and self-destruction. The group’s sophomore album, Downers, is nearly a concept album rending asunder sunshiney perspectives on that nebulous, paradoxical emotion. Just take a cursory glance at the tracklist — four the album’s 10 songs have the four-letter word in their jeering titles, three of which compose the opening triad.
Debut record Wormfood employed a lyrical focus contrasting mortality and life. Downers features a similar yin-yang theme, that being the juxtaposition between love and apathy (though the specter of death remains a frequent touchstone). Yet even in its lightest moments, love is not met with ecstasy, but carries a veneer of melancholia. Love here is finicky, transitory, a pipedream and a fool’s errand. Woe permeates the work, but that doesn’t make it a lugubrious listen. Rather, it’s inescapably fun and addictive despite the morose subject. It’s sensitive and yearning, bitter and hurt, but avoids being mopey, thanks to frontman Ryan Spencer’s cut-to-the-core lyrics balanced with the music’s innovation and buoyancy.
The sheer dynamism in the genre-weaving is simply astounding. Merging electronic, dance club hip-hop beats, and indie rock with dashes of goth, baroque, and Britpop, they craft an aural world of neon glows and vibrant radiation. The Queens’ ability to meld acoustic and electronic instrumentation is a particular boon. With the record’s immaculate production, songs that would otherwise feel cold instead give off palpable warmth. This also facilitates the frequent abrupt deviations in time signatures, melodies, and structures, making the transitions not jarring, but attention-grabbing. These wild sidesteps could have easily felt like token experiments, but instead they retain an organic quality.
Somber opener “You Can Fall in Love with Anyone” starts with gloppy bleeps, sugary beats, and simple acoustic strumming backing Spencer’s pleading croon. It sucks you into this realm, some Phil Spector girl group-esque drums arriving in the chorus before a distorted string section floats out of the layers. Suitably brief, it gives way to the reserved “Never Felt Love”. An array of fuzz and loose-change clinking unfurls before plaintive key twinkling emerges with Spencer airing his insecurities over a moldering relationship. “Express your disdain / And you can hold me in contempt for days," he sings with multi-tracked vocals, the song bearing a distinctive David Bowie influence. “I’m right / Big deal / So long," he sings in an attempt to toss off pain in the album’s most heartbreaking moment.
Things get a little more optimistic in single “Love Is Impossible”, the energy ratcheted up a few notches to keep things from getting too staid. Imbued with the tenacity of a survivor who came through the other end of a dire situation, it has the aura of acceptance and relief in the shimmering chorus. Set against its predecessor, a bi-polar degree of wavering is conveyed, a theme carried throughout the record.
Previously released on a two-song EP, “Bored + Lazy” and “Joe” are the most individually engaging songs. The former hits with start-stop rhythms and an array of dub step bass, piling on the murk for the gems beneath to glisten through. The mellow robotic croon of the refrain belies the menace, hooking you with seductive unease. “Joe” is similarly compelling with its abrasive sensory derangement. A barrage of percussion including finger snaps, pounding drums, and free-floating beats complement the lyrical skittering of lust, paranoia, and despondency. Shortly after the midpoint, the craziness winds down to a reflective second half, as if the narrator has cracked and is rocking his straight-jacketed self to sleep in a padded room, a suggestive grin still creasing his face.
New musical arrows in Jamaican Queens’ quiver are explored in “Anna” and “If You Really Love Me”, the former having a waltzing sway of ‘60s chamber pop with some harp plucking thrown in for texture. The latter is built on an unabashed reggae rhythm. With its sensual groove and delicately cooing female backing vocals, it offsets the lyrics of suicidal desperation. “Don’t Call Me Up” is Queens at their ostensibly most upbeat and conventional. An ‘80s New Wave send-up, it could best be described as jubilantly dejected and is the most immediately danceable. Wrapping it all is closer “Cold Babe”, a subtle palate cleanser. The sparsest of the bunch, at least for the first fourth, it grows toward a crescendo then tapers off with crystalline keyboards and the declaration, “I only care for you / And you only care for me." Musically, lyrically, it imparts a sense of thematic closure.
Every song on Downers is essential; there is no filler. Everything the band did right on Wormfood, they expand on. The few blemishes that record had are culled. The motif of malaise laced with pleasure is deftly executed, that the album is ideal for summer drives in a sweltering sun daze. That dichotomy is given voice in the work’s most succinct couplet: “Life isn’t all that bad / But love is impossible."