Long-running power-pop band We Are Scientists have kept busy since we last covered them here at PopMatters, with 2018’s Megaplex. 2019 saw them release a live acoustic performance of their breakthrough album With Love and Squalor. The performance, dubbed Live in Woodstock, had the bizarre comedic premise that the group was a folk act playing at a bar in the town of Woodstock, New York, in August of 1969 while the famous music festival was taking place a few miles away. We Are Scientists continued working on new material during COVID lockdowns, and 2021’s Huffy was an exuberant collection that hearkened back to the their early days. Their latest, Lobes, arrives at the beginning of 2023 looking even further back, to the synthpop of the 1980s.
Despite their inception as a power trio of guitar, bass, and drums, We Are Scientists have used keyboards for years. Lobes is notable for building its songs specifically around keyboard lines and exploration of 1980s-style synth tones. Even so, the record isn’t a radical departure for them. Keith Murray’s vocal melodies are as catchy as ever, he’s just using synths more than he’s using guitars this time out. The absence of guitar fuzz gives Chris Cain’s bass playing the spotlight much of the time, and he’s got some really tasty riffs on these tracks. In the press materials Murray describes Lobes as the darker nighttime follow-up to Huffy‘s sun-soaked good times.
The opener, “Operator Error”, sets the tone. It opens with synth stabs, adds an active bassline from Cain, and keeps the drums and guitars out of the mix until the first chorus. That first chorus hits just 25 seconds in. Still, the synths are present for the whole song, and vocoder-style vocals on the bridge keep the electronic-adjacent feel going. Lyrically it’s typical We Are Scientists territory, with bad decisions from a sardonic narrator: “I could foresee it from a mile away / This whole oncoming disaster / You think it’s bad now, oh man, why don’t you wait / You won’t believe what comes after.”
We Are Scientists mention in that “Human Resources” was finished early and set the template for the rest of Lobes. Stylistically that makes sense. Much like “Operator Error”, it opens with synths and a prominent bassline. This one takes a little time getting to the refrain with an extended verse and a pre-chorus. Once that full chorus hits, however, it’s all big guitars and big beats. The second verse features additional layers of synths, and in lieu of a bridge they throw in a 1980s metal-style harmonized guitar solo. There’s a lot going on in “Human Resources”, but the band keeps the track grounded with strong melodies and ear candy riffs.
While much of the album is more generally 1980s-inspired, “Turn It Up” is very specifically a New Order pastiche. Fortunately it’s a good one. Cain’s bass and a burbling synth riff drive the song, while Murray’s baritone vocals match Bernard Sumner’s vocal range. His fairly monotone vocal verses followed by a soaring chorus are a mirror of New Order’s classic singles, as is the thumping dance beat.
Slowing things down has traditionally been a mixed bag for We Are Scientists, but the more relaxed tracks here are big successes. “Dispense With Sentiment” is a crumbling relationship song that injects fairly bright music with just a touch of melancholy. The sweeping synths do a good job of enhancing that feeling. The track also contains Lobes’ most cutting self-deprecation. “‘Was that supposed to be amusing?’ She asked / ‘Because I’d rather that you be understood.'”
The similarly themed “Lucky Just to Be Here” is almost five minutes long, epic length for We Are Scientists. They take advantage of the space to let the song breathe, so Murray’s resignation that his relationship is ending (not just crumbling this time) shines through. The pounding drums and slashing guitars of the bridge feel earned, despite the songwriting technique being very familiar.
“Parachute” takes them in a different direction, with a mid-tempo shuffle and flute patches filling the background of the song. It’s mostly a big song with a lot of sound, which is why the quiet pre-chorus is such an effective contrast. The chorus also features a strong lyrical hook, with “Just because I’m scared to / Doesn’t mean I’m scared of you / I always wear this parachute.”
Lobes finishes with two songs that explore synth-rock from different angles. “Less From You” is a high-powered dance-rock track, complete with disco beats, slightly funky guitar, and laser beam synths. It’s relatively by the numbers as far as the genre goes, but We Are Scientists do it with enough enthusiasm and energy to make it successful. “Miracle of 22”, on the other hand, has a synth riff but also prominent acoustic guitar. Murray is back to relationship angst; the song leans heavily on the refrain “I guess I’m running out of time / I’m gonna have to make my move / If I somehow make it out alive / It’ll be the miracle of 22.”
“Miracle of 22” is an interesting closer because it finishes the album on a note of uncertainty. Even the final chord feels unsettled. That’s a good way to reinforce how Lobes is distinct from Huffy. There’s just enough musical space between the feel of the two albums that they seem related but effectively different. Lobes splits its time between the nightclub and the comedown after the club. There’s often been a tone of “Things are falling apart but I’m gonna party through it” to We Are Scientists’ songs. This time out there’s a bit of “Things are falling apart and I’m starting to deal with that” in the mix, which is a refreshing change of pace.