There was a point in time when modern indie teetered from twee into coattails-thrown-back theatricality. It’s hard to pinpoint, but Funeral, Arcade Fire’s 2004 masterpiece, a record of such size that it continuously creates towers within itself, most likely sparked the sea change. Win Butler and his cohort wrote songs for stadiums before the band began selling them out, and the music justified their ambitions. Others, like the National and Frightened Rabbit, followed suit. However, these bands, while trafficking in multi-track production and guitar swells that seemed to rip through rooftops, were still grounded in eccentricity. That’s what made them “indie”, whether they decried the label or not.
On This Night Falls Forever, their first album since 2011’s 100 Lovers, Devotchka craft songs that fit that indie tradition. These are compositions, somewhere between the marching troubadour worldliness of Beirut and the neighborhood-shaking grandeur of Funeral, that place stories of suburban romance into widescreen soundscapes radiating with ghosts and demons.
To most, Devotchka are known as the composers for films such as Little Miss Sunshine, Crazy Stupid Love, and I Love You Philip Morris. Listening to This Night Falls Forever, and the work that preceded it, you can see why they ventured into this territory. In its spaciousness, pacing, and flair for the dramatic, in its interpolation of spaghetti western strings and back-alley cabaret melodies, this is indie rock at its most cinematic. The first notes of “Let Me Sleep” prove this: a bass waltzes forward, pushes through ornate red curtains and onto an empty stage, while a piano, drunk on something, urges it onward. This will be a striptease, the music suggests, or something more lurid, more graphic. “Oh, my love / Won’t let me sleep / It pulls the blankets right off of my feet / It tears the very fabric of my dream,” frontman Nick Urata croons. It’s an image that can only be described as David Lynchian.
“Straight Shot”, the album’s opener and first single, finds Urata reminiscing about a small town, not unlike Lumberton from Lynch’s Blue Velvet. But, here, there are no severed ears. There are only white picket fences and kids listening to rock ‘n’ roll and young lovers who have too much ahead of them to worry about the present. “Oh, it’s like a straight shot / Through the backyards and the vacant lots / Through the very chambers of my heart,” Urata sings, conjuring a kind of collective memory where you’re smitten with someone and, in his own words, “everything is so romantic and huge”. The guitar and drums behind him are insistent. His vocals are fragile, nostalgic without sounding mournful. The song’s centerpiece — a wordless melody descending across a guitar shuffle — is a pristine indie rock hook that echoes in your head long after the track ends.
Throughout, there are tics that recall the work of other indie bards who have made their names through a certain literariness and commitment to sonic experimentation. “Second Chance” and “Done With These Days” deploy the melancholic whistling of Andrew Bird. “Empty Vessels”, another album standout, is carried along by propulsive orchestration that wouldn’t be out of place on a Phosphorescent record. But then there are other tracks, such as the feedback-soaked “Angels” and soaringly paranoiac “My Little Despot”, that don’t bring any other names to mind. These are the tracks where you can hear a band casting off reference points and embracing a sound that is uniquely their own.
“I wanted to capture that moment of twilight falling, where there’s electricity in the air and you get the sense that everything is going to be okay,” Urata said of the record’s title. “Lose You in the Crowd”, perhaps better than any other track on the record, isolates this feeling. It begins with plucking, then mumbling, then something close to a heartbeat. “Oh, I wish we could stay frozen in this moment / So you and I could drink of this night before it’s over / In the blink of an eye,” Urata sings, and it’s quiet, as if he’s hesitant to let the song move forward and leave this moment in the past. But the song progresses anyway, and he joins it, letting his words fill with confidence and implacable momentum. It’s a track of immense size, drama, and broken-soul wistfulness, and that’s why, among other things, it’s great indie rock.