Photo: Krista Schlueter

Darwin Deez: Double Down

For his third release, a pretender to Prince's throne trips over his own nastiness.
Darwin Deez
Double Down
Lucky Number

Darwin Deez (née Darwin Smith) is indie rock’s tinkerer. He obsesses over minute formal variation, typically the realm of the mercenary, the avant-gardist, and the hobbyist, and while his winking, performative play with rock tropes occasionally slouches into cynicism, Darwin swings between the latter two. Every chord a jazz chord on his self-titled 2009 debut, he palm-muted them all over tinny, ditty-bop Casio percussion. It worked for ten rhythmically jilting songs—post-punk for post-ironists. Initially homogenous, I found favorites, such as “DNA” and “Radar Detector”, which sounds exactly like “DNA” pep-stepping. For 2013’s follow-up Songs for Imaginative People, he expanded his structures, beefed up his guitar in every way (most noticeably in a distortion pedal and technically proficient if melodically inattentive solos) opened up his engineering, and even added a solid approximation of a real live drummer, where Darwin Deez contented itself with pulse and clap.

Between these two albums, Darwin followed a twisted but consistent form, basically a very funky bossa-nova rock. He pairs admirable melodies with his extremely limited vocal range, and as a child of the bedroom studio, his double-tracked falsetto has gotten him out of more than one harmonic jam. The digital rhythm section shows up for work without drawing attention to itself. Plus there’s the willingness to pursue a lyrical metaphor for far longer than is interesting, satisfying, or polite. Overall, think late-period David Byrne covering Prince, with all the cultural appropriation that implies.

Double Down does not progress so much as split the difference between the first two albums: short, simple songs, fewer solos than Songs, clean chord formations with aggressive drumming. While constituting a form of forward motion, synthesizing the chordwork of his debut with the fretwork of his follow-up replicates the basic lead/rhythm rock sound. His chords still ring with disjointed treble and cobbled rhythm, giving him sonic identity, but the control replaces both Darwin Deez‘s janky experimentation and Songs‘ moments of exuberant punk bombast (q.v. “Free (The Editorial Me)”). Theoretically, this could mean he sounds more like Prince than ever, but his romantic life has never held much of a place for something so mundane as fucking. “Rated R” comes as close as he’s ever gotten to a sex song, and for that it’s one of his best, but we should note that he projects the thrill of sexual discovery onto a 15-year-old who can only conceive of the material reality of sex in terms of censored adulthood:

It’s the weight of all the dirty words you say

And the nudity is new to me

With a straight face and a plain walk

We can sneak into the movie with the chainsaw

You are rated R

I’m fifteen, I’m fifteen

You are rated R

You’re bad for me but I’m happy.

As a big boy now, Deez takes more pleasure in brushing women off than getting physical. He expresses it through active condescension, as in “Lover”:

You only care about your hair

To you a mirror is a miracle

Don’t even notice that I’m there

Too busy checking that you’re spherical

It’s another one down the drain

Have the beautiful but not the brain

Deez also expresses it through the passive desire to replace the love-object with his fantasy of it, as in the whole song he dedicates to this concept, “The Missing I Wanna Do”: “So can we go slow / Cuz I wanna be all for you / And if I’m never alone / Then how will I do the missing I wanna do?” and later “I like you but I like my space” and “I need you here, believe me, dear / But I need you gone for a while though / I need to pore more over my findings of what I feel when your smile shows”, which altogether conflates a desire for space — which is understandable, common, and valid — with a desire to hold his object of affection in place of that object itself in all of their complex humanity. Maybe he just thought sex was boring, but it shows in his vocal stylings: all in the head.

So we come to hear that a certain heretofore avoidable if present fact of Darwin’s songwriting deals more damage to Double Down than an undecided guitar. It was more obscured on the first two albums because philosophy cut into the love songs, e.g. “Constellations” and “(800) Human” alternately bemoaned and celebrated humanistic nihilism. Either something went wrong in Deez’s life or he misjudged his appeal, because with 11 out of 11 songs on Double Down about romance or relationships, mostly sans the metaphysical or even ontological angst with which Darwin tried to set himself apart in Brooklyn’s indie scene, we hear with uncomfortable clarity that Darwin Deez is a bitter misogynist. I give Darwin Smith an out that he may not deserve in that Deez is a persona, but when he sings on “Bag of Tricks” only an act of unfairly generous will could ignore the sour taste of ’80s-style sexism.

Showtime tonight, so many men crowd around you,

So crowded I can’t get through

When your bag of tricks runs out,

Will they still love you when they doubt

Remember, ready-made gags have price tags

And I’m concerned about your health,

The way you prostitute yourself

Remember, ready-made gags have price tags

The lead single, “Kill Your Attitude”, may have a clever melody, circularly satisfying hooks, and a solo that doesn’t overstay its already-limited welcome, but the central conceit is one of two songs steamrolling a friends’ bad feelings. Here, he says, “Kill your attitude, girl / You know I’m mad at you still / And I know you’re mad at me”, and in the second single, “Time Machine”, he implores more platonically, “Climb in my time machine, I’ve been mean, now I’m sorry / So do you mind if we just skipped to when we’re friends again? / What do I have to say to get you to see it my way?” Because music, more than a lot of other media and forms, is addressed outside the self, that art cannot register a response seems like a precondition for Deez’s requests and demands for his friends and romantic partners not to tell him if, how, or why he has made them mad, while he gets to request and demand legitimacy in his own anger. “Last Cigarette” tips his hand as he compares a romantic relationship both to a toxic addiction and the source of that addiction. That is, blame for his failures gets shifted. “The Mess She Made” is a ballad for a dumped friend that has as its concern exactly what’s in the title: pity for him, blame for her.

Darwin Smith lives in Brooklyn, was educated at Wesleyan. His smile reaches his eyes, and he bobs his head delightfully while singing, at least in music videos — themselves not merely clever but positively interesting. His demeanor and cultural significations work to blur the reality of his musical contributions, consisting of, on the one hand, jolting blasts and twinkles, syrupy phrasings, disjointed melodies, and, on the other, forceful misinterpretations of self-worth, love, sexism, communication, epistemology, friendship, listening, asking, requesting, demanding, self-expression, and self-protection.

RATING 4 / 10