Warpaint: Heads Up

Warpaint may have crafted their best album yet, one that adroitly harnesses and alchemizes genres, moods, and sounds to suit their many purposes.


Heads Up

Label: Rough Trade
US Release Date: 2016-09-23
UK Release Date: 2016-09-23

Not to overemphasize labels, but whenever I hear Warpaint described as "dream pop" I am slightly taken aback. True, the band has a ghostly aura and uses a lot of reverb, suggesting an affinity for the spirit realm, but there is something about them that is quite physical as well, far too physical for dream pop. Warpaint's music is raw, somewhat wild and unkempt, almost vicious at times and they sound like women who have been exiled for years in the wilderness. Or, with absolutely no offense intended, they are akin to fungi, the decomposers of the natural world. Their sound is rooted in the material realm, but the vessels they inhabit are decayed, rotting, breaking down, the spirit half-departed already. It is this duality between the otherworldly and the grossly corporeal that lends Warpaint their macabre, compelling sound, and that makes them so engaging to listen to.

There is also, of course, their knack for insistent, addictive hooks. Often the band has buried their gifts for melody under layers of grit, worming their way into the listener's ear concealed in shadows. However, "New Song", the lead single from Warpaint's third album Heads Up, puts its skill on full display, and is not ashamed to flaunt its pop brilliance for all to see. Perhaps intentionally, it's the spiritual opposite of their previous lead single "Love Is to Die", from 2014's Warpaint. If the spirit was then on the verge of giving up hope and at last departing the body for good, here is a faint sound beckoning their return, summoning them back to life. The "new"-ness is important: it is as if the band members were vampires who had existed for ages and thought they'd seen all there was to see, only to rejoice at finding that they were wrong. The song is brighter and tighter-knit than anything the band has done to date, and rivals Haim in its embrace of canny fusion-pop.

"New Song", like all Warpaint lead singles thus far, rests in the third slot on the track list, after Heads Up has already had time to establish its core sound, which is not as sugary overall. The other five songs on the album's first half reside in roughly the same sonic territory as one another: they tend to begin with sparse drum programming, and then layer on a driving bass groove, embellishments of guitar, and occasional electronic flourishes. It approaches deconstructed funk-rock as often as punchy post-punk.

Despite some slight stylistic differences, these five tracks share a common sense of optimism with "New Song". On "Don't Wanna", Emily Kokal asks, "Why's the story gotta be about being sad?" It's here that Warpaint take one of the biggest and most treacherous risks in rock music: sounding happy and well-adjusted on record. One answer to the question from "Don't Wanna", after all, is that sadness is way more interesting than happiness, and a person can only listen to so many contented songs before becoming bored and maybe a bit resentful. Fortunately, while Warpaint communicate an unexpected sense of contentment on Heads Up (which, perhaps not coincidentally, only seems to be something bands do at least several albums into their career), they bypass most of the risks and pitfalls of this approach by eschewing emotional singularity and ensuring that shreds of darkness persist on each track, musically if not always lyrically.

It's interesting to learn that the band members composed much of the album apart from one another, often working independently or in pairs with producer Jake Bercovici. This is striking because the album's first half has the relaxed, low-key feel of a communal jam session, albeit one that could conceivably have been conducted in the re-appropriated space of a decrepit and long-abandoned Victorian house. "So Good", one of the album's highlights, allows itself to sprawl out over six winding minutes, sounding simultaneously epic and easy. The relaxed, loose air is all subterfuge, though, shrewdly concealing a sharp adeptness at songwriting and craft.

When "Don't Let Go" arrives at track seven, however, things start to spin off their axis. Haunting acoustic guitars appear for the first time, drums well up and nearly overtake the song, rejecting their previous position as mere foundation. The song would be striking regardless, but taken in context, this mid-tempo number becomes positively arresting. It then ushers in the album's nearly perfect second half, where Heads Up breaks free from its solid encasing and becomes loftier, more dramatic, more versatile and adventurous. On "Dre", which follows Warpaint's "Biggie" as another unlikely tribute to an iconic rapper, drummer Stella Mozgawa continues her ascent into prominence, burying the rest of the track in a slow motion, muffled avalanche of sound. The title track meanwhile begins with somber, echoing piano that sounds like something exhumed from a dusty, forgotten catacomb, before suddenly plunging into a pulsating collage of funk, rock, post-punk, and even disco.

Acoustic guitars appear again to conclude the album on "Today Dear", a forlorn shard of haunted folk that will appeal to those who liked "Billie Holiday". Here Warpaint lower their shields and at last stand before the listener in a rare moment of total vulnerability. It is here we learn that the contentment alluded to elsewhere on the album was not easily won: "I saw my blood drawn out, saw my flood run dry / I have no fear, my dear / Today, no moment will pass me by," Kokal whispers chillingly. The song sounds ancient, as though sung by the exhausted wind and the trees themselves. It is the album's loveliest moment.

With Heads Up, Warpaint may have crafted their best album yet, one that adroitly harnesses and alchemizes genres, moods, and sounds to suit their many purposes. Perhaps the fungi metaphor is no longer apt after all as here, they have created something complex, intricate, and organic, a work that has its own life and its own imagination. At 52 minutes, it is no longer than your standard album, and yet it has seemingly bottomless depths and wide-open horizons that reward the listener with the possibilities of unending exploration. The fact that it can never be fully known makes it all the more revelatory.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.