In a recent interview with PopMatters, Steve Wynn describes their 2017 album How Did I Find Myself Here? as both “a kind of rebirth” for the band and “a little bit of a bridge to the past”. Certainly, fans who cherished the bands’ four 1980s records found a lot to reconnect to, but Wynn has always looked forward more than back. Now that they return with another collection of new material, he and the band feel less restricted by their past, more open to new directions. Comparing past and present, he tells PopMatters, “I feel like we share a name with a band from that decade and cover some of their songs, but we’re somebody else at this point.”
It has always been a characteristic of Dream Syndicate not to do anything twice. While there might be an identifiable Dream Syndicate sound, it is not contained within any specific rule or structure. Remember how many American critics hated Medicine Show for refusing to follow the expected formula set by Days of Wine and Roses? Remember how many wrote off Ghost Stories because the band had the alacrity to create immediately accessible songs?). These Times is a new Dream Syndicate record that sounds less like the previous Dream Syndicate record, making it a standard Dream Syndicate record, with songs well beyond any standard.
These Times‘ opening track “The Way In” can be heard as a statement of purpose for Dream Syndicate in the 21st century. “Tryin’ to reconcile the past with the present,” Wynn sings, “Which one fits and which one doesn’t / And we shed our skin just to find a way in.” Wynn, Dennis Duck, Mark Walton, and Jason Victor have become, over five years of touring, one of the most vibrant live bands out there. This road-burnished lineup is arguably a better and stronger music machine than they were, even, in their 1980s heyday. “The Way In” is the sound of a band shedding its skin and emerging renewed, refreshed, and more dangerous than before.
“Put Some Miles On” amplifies that new energy. It’s a droning and ominous road song where Wynn’s narrator talk-sings himself awake to the AM radio, popping pills as the landscape rolls by. It evokes comparison to another of America’s great composers of road songs, Pere Ubu’s David Thomas. This song shares its mood with “Dark” from Ubu’s 2002 album St. Arkansas. In both, there’s a shared sense of expansiveness and claustrophobia: these narrators can cross the great divide, put miles between random destinations, but can never escape themselves. A few songs later, “Recovery Mode” returns to this lost but not standing still vibe, with Wynn singing, “Thrashing at the scenery with random sensibility / Give me distraction, get me in on the action.”
There’s a great variety of sound here, with the band finding assorted patterns and grooves that they haven’t previously explored, embracing new possibilities for the sheer joy in the collective exploration. “Black Light” is unlike any song Dream Syndicate has ever recorded; it could be their take on Johnny Cash fronting Suicide. Meanwhile, “The Whole World Is Watching” might be described as Steely Dan-noir in its instrumental structure. These Days is the sound of a band daring themselves to turn off the usual filters and try new things. A Dream Syndicate record is never not going to be dark and heavy, but at the same time, you can hear the joy they bring to playing these songs together.
In his own assessment of the new record, PopMatters’ Jedd Beaudoin says “This is not a band competing with its past but instead carving out a new future.” I agree, and more. Despite its name, These Times is not a statement record. Wynn and Co. are not here positioning themselves as elder statesmen with a message for the young, at least, not if the message one is looking for is political. If there is a message to be read implicitly among these ten songs it is in the breadth of the musical stylings themselves. Before we began treating it as art, before we began parsing its lyrics for social context and cultural meaning, rock and roll was simply dance music, a collective statement of pleasure at the moment. Wynn’s second iteration of the Dream Syndicate seems to embrace the simplicity of rock’s origins. They’re here to make good music and, if you make it to a show, rock your world. Sometimes, that’s all that’s necessary.