A stunning example of a band too near perfection from the onset, Lovedrug will most likely wobble on their high plateau for a bit, look around at all the options before them, and -- like so many great bands who unfortunately allow themselves to get creatively milked and squandered by the industry -- take the wrong step forward. But until then, we can listen to Pretend You're Alive with the enthusiasm of knowing that Lovedrug remain sacred for now, for in the world of rock and roll, the promise and the hope of an exciting band with merely the potential to deliver us from banality are the purest thrill, the sweetest high, and the deepest emotion all rolled into one.
All of which is not to say that Pretend You're Alive has nothing to offer beyond promise. Rarely does a band come along who are so evolved in the art of guitar-based pop songwriting that back-to-back ballads don't grow boring, spirituality doesn't seem shallow or dumb, and profundity isn't forced. With songs like the radio-ready "Spiders" and the early single "Rocknroll", Lovedrug manage to balance the ingredients perfectly, even if they veer dangerously close to generic major label greatness -- something for which these specific songs appear to be auditioning. Holding the same ballad-heavy station as Snow Patrol or Idlewild (six of the album's 13 tracks could be classified as such), Lovedrug keep safely out of the Coldplay camp by infusing their lush, polished sound with a furious dose of '90s multi-guitar indie-rock dynamism. Meanwhile, the best tracks on Pretend You're Alive demonstrate the band's splintery edges as still intact and worth relishing, yet in serious danger of being sanded off.
The brilliant standout "Blackout" sounds deceptively like the soundtrack to a pivotal WB teen show break-up scene, belying the weighty grimness of the song. Not only is the primary vocal hook of the anthemic chorus ("I'll save my life for something good") coupled with images of depravity and violence ("And when he's punching her skull on the bathroom floor / Does it get him off?"), but frontman Michael Shepard performs a chilling literary trick in the verses, detaching the persona of the song from his abhorrent actions by singing in first person (i.e. "I am on the prowl," "I am hailing a cab"), then suddenly switching to the third: "I am is creeping on the streets tonight." The song remains free of melodrama or gothic pretension, but it maintains just enough emotional angst to serve multiple purposes -- for multiple audiences.
The aching "In Red" immediately rolls to shore on a lulling bass-heavy throb akin to Wish-era Cure -- Lovedrug's sound could easily fill a stadium -- while lamenting an individual at honor's mercy, possibly a soldier justifying his woeful position, fighting a war in which he doesn't believe. Most artists would use a line like, "On a beach we're dressed in red" to mean something celebratory and light-hearted, but Lovedrug savor their words as opportunities to feature their refreshing intelligence -- a strength on which they never need to depend.
"Down Towards the Healing", the album's best ballad, is spiritual emotionalism at its fragile best, embellished by piano, like Radiohead's "Pyramid Song" if its self-deprecation were resigned rather than wallowing; in contrast, "The Monster" serves as a descendent of The Bends. In a similar vein, "Pandamoranda" redresses the band in high-angst, near-operatic hard rock like Placebo or Muse, and Shepard's Matt Bellamy-meets-Björk vocal style certainly rises to the challenge. The musicians, especially drummer Matthew Putman, are in fine form throughout the entire record, but they sound especially brutal here. While none of these pieces argue for Lovedrug's individuality (though, as Americans, they do stand apart from their mostly country-laced peers), they boast the band's ability to achieve what others have taken several albums to perfect.
As with most albums dominated by a handful of lengthy ballads, Pretend You're Alive suffers a bit from its 57-minute runtime, especially as momentum is lost about two-thirds of the way in. However, the weaker tracks still showcase the record's extraordinary production (by Sponge's Tim Patalan) and mastering, which prove that "indie" is no longer synonymous with "cheaper-sounding", and should therefore convince the band that they are better off without the confinement of a major label's commercial appetite. Lovedrug's sound is commercial enough. With any more palatable smoothing, the band will lose what makes their music so addictive and emotionally fulfilling, while we will simply overdose.