Death From Above 1979 are here to stay. This is the message that bassist Jesse F. Keeler and drummer and vocalist Sebastien Grainger seem keen to leave.
After dropping a stone-cold classic in 2004 with You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, the band abruptly broke up just two years later. This was in spite of winning over audiences and critics with their refreshing blend of throbbing punk bass riffs, sexually charged lyrics and bombastic drums.
After several years of inactivity, it was quite the surprise when they dropped their follow-up album The Physical World in 2014 and even more surprising when Outrage! Is Now was released in 2017. The new records continued their winning formula of groovy but heavy music, while incorporating elements of hard rock.
Is 4 Lovers finds DFA in a strange position. Four albums – and seventeen years – deep into their career they seem keen to experiment. Perhaps the band is aware that their sound is no longer as uncommon as it used to be. DFA now ventures into new sonic territory, but the question is whether the new material can stand shoulder to shoulder with their previous efforts?
To get around this, Death From Above play it safe in the album’s opening moments. ‘Modern Guy’ sports an undulating bass and synth melody while a drum machine keeps pace. The track cannot help but feel a tad played out.
It comes off like a less impressive version of a song from their first two albums. Plus, the track is a bit too over-produced. DFA have always been a very visceral band and the use of such processed drum sounds does not complement Keeler’s vibrant bass.
The later tracks fare better. With some live drums and a simple earworm riff, the song feels much more alive. Though looking to achieve something different, the second track captures the essence of the hard rock grandiosity the band aimed for on Outrage! Is Now with the road-worn bass work. Not to mention there is a killer bridge that makes great use of some choir style vocals.
The first half of the record tends to follow this trend of mid-tempo dance-rock bangers, with tight, groovy verses that bloom into fuzzy scuzzy choruses. But the two-part suite of ‘N.Y.C. Power Elite Part I and II’ is where the album becomes a different beast.
‘Part 1’ is a joyous blast of energy with Keeler providing a chunky rhythm. However, the lyrics are a big departure from usual DFA affair. Grainger pokes fun at the corporate suits in charge of the music business with references to helicopter brunches and wearing ripped jeans in a boardroom. It’s a cheeky and restless track, maybe the purest sense of fun the duo has provided since their debut album.
‘Part 2’ could not be more different with an imposing groove that steamrolls any sense of playfulness. With the slower tempo and harsh tone, DFA feel like they’re making a big statement. An instruction to buckle up and prepare for what lies ahead, perhaps.
Let’s address the biggest anomaly first. There is a full-blown piano ballad on a Death From Above album. It may sound unconventional, but it can’t be denied that the music sounds utterly blissful. With a gentle melody that transitions seamlessly into some 80’s sounding keyboards. Adding a wistful and nostalgic tone to Grainger’s lovelorn vocal.
The second half of Is 4 Lovers falls all over the map stylistically. The band goes from Indietronic synth work on ‘Glass Homes’ to the more epic sound of ‘Mean Streets’ with its ominous piano backing. Even a return to their punky roots with ‘Totally Wiped Out.’
This last batch of tracks are difficult to talk about. The direction the band is going in is an admirable one. They seem determined to not make the same record again, something you could argue they have done before. The problem, though, is in the execution.
It feels great to see the band dipping their toes into different genres and sounds but these tracks come off sounding like very well produced demos rather than actual songs. You can lose yourself to them for a few seconds when an interesting bass riff or some unexpected keys pop up. But eventually you realise these songs have nothing but rough ideas and no solid melodies or grooves to get lodged in your brain.
I also cannot get behind some of the lyrics on these songs. The ham-fisted metaphor on ‘Glass Homes’ and the vague rambling of ‘Mean Streets’ wash straight past me. It seems like Grainger ran out of new lyrical tricks around ‘N.Y.C. Power Elite’ and phoned it in until the record finished.
Overall, I found Is 4 Lovers to be somewhat of a mixed bag. Sometimes its thrilling and fun, other times the record sounds dour and imposing. Its not a bad record by any stretch. There are some great high points in fact, and I can see myself revisiting individual songs in the future. But some will definitely be forgotten when considering the grand scheme of Death From Above’s career.
If anything, Is 4 Lovers makes me excited for the future. From here DFA could venture into all kinds of new sonic territory and I can’t wait to see the results.
Words by Sam Bullock
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