Music Reviews
Drifters / Love Is the Devil

Dirty Beaches Drifters / Love Is the Devil

(Zoo) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

It’s a generally unspoken but well understood fact that the more of yourself you put into your art, the harder it can be to handle even the slightest bit of criticism. Alex Zhang Hungtai, the sole member of lo-fi recording project Dirty Beaches, set the standard for this recently after erupting towards a disapproving YouTube comment for album single Love Is the Devil, a sparse instrumental featuring little more than some forlorn synthesized viola. “I was crying my fucking eyes out when I wrote this and punching myself in the face,” Hungtai replied back, claiming that the album was written for him and has no desire to fulfill anyone’s expectations. Call it self-absorbed if you want, but Hungtai’s fiery, unfiltered response (which he has since apologized for) is accurate about one thing: Drifters / Love Is the Devil is drenched in the man’s blood and tears; a cerebral, emotional journey through the darkest pits of the soul. And though you could wander the muggy, desolate streets which make up the album and submerge yourself in its bleak atmosphere, the isolation and pain permeated throughout is all his - the numb soundscapes throughout reflecting his most personal emotions – and were all invited to experience them first hand.

“Dark” isn’t necessarily new territory for Dirty Beaches, as the project’s debut, 2011’s Badlands, was an unsettling collection of lo-fi, Suicide-inspired blend of blues, soul, and rockabilly that casted Hungtai as a leather-clad protagonist with an Elvis-like quiver and one-too-many dark secrets. But while artists would start cleaning up their sound upon gaining critical attention, Hungtai does the exact opposite with his sophomore effort, expanding his sound into a dense, largely wordless double-LP that presents a much greater challenge, but exudes a greater and more engrossing emotional dirge. But Drifters / Love Is the Devil isn’t exactly the kind of confessional, “let-me-tell-you-about-all-my-problems” kind of album that’s typically associated with the term “emotional.” Rather than relying on lyrics and angst, Hungtai manifests his pain into vivid environments that are as robust as they are terrifying – a decaying urban landscape inhabited by dilapidated apartment buildings, flickering neon signs selling sex, sketchy, disheveled drifters babbling incoherently in languages you don’t understand, and the ghosts of a million lost loves and broken dreams.

Hungtai was bold for taking the double album approach, as we all know how faulty that album format can be. But while it’s certainly debatable whether or not Drifters / Love Is the Devil would work best in a more condensed, single-serving format, the two aesthetically unique yet thematically linked halves present a sort of detailed descent into madness that would be hard to pull off without the extra disc space. While this does mean that the album will take multiple listens to fully grasp all of its unique facets and textures, it does make for a far more engrossing and rewarding experience when the time is taken to sit through the entire collection to feel the musical erosion that takes place.

Disc 1 (Drifters), for instance, is easily the more accessible and vocal half, and picks up where Dirty Beaches left off on his last album. Though more varied and fully realized than much of what was on Badlands, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the mournful yelps and wailing guitar skronk of Nightwalk or the bluesy keyboard lines of I Dream in Neon appearing as strong outtakes from that album. Meanwhile, tracks like urgent, percussive Casino Lisboa and the sensitive-yet-menacing ELLI offer greater variation on the artist's established sound. Of course, the strongest element in these tracks remains Hungtai’s voice – a haunting, soulful bellow that ranges from mournful to desperate to outright terrifying, especially when it’s in another language.

But don’t get used to hearing this voice, as Hungtai is shortly dwarfed by the monster he’s created out of dread and fear before disc 1 can even conclude. Beginning with Mirage Hall, the fantastic, 9-minute disco drug haze that barely lets the man yelp out a few cries in Spanish before swallowing him whole, the remainder of Drifters / Love Is the Devil is a largely instrumental tar pit of despair that sees the project pushing its sound into new, frightening territory. Disc 2 (the one where the devil reveals its identity), might just be the most bleak collection of tracks released this year (and trust me, that’s saying a LOT). But while the majority of the disc’s tracks are formless, yet beautifully textured soundscapes, each one nevertheless feels unique and paints heartache with a different brush. Whether it’s the numb, atonal horn cries of Greyhound at Night, the desperate romance of synth-ballad I Don’t Know How to Find My Way Back to You, or the crushingly distant guitar lines and synth washes of Alone at the Danube River, each track is like watching a lost soul slipping further and further into isolation and despair until nothing is left. Hungtai’s vocals do come back in the track Like the Ocean We Part, but as his cracked, weary voice moans “Drifting away” over a sparse guitar line, you’re left with the chilling impression that the singer is slowly fading out of existence, as closing instrumental Berlin leaves you stranded and alone.

Alex Zhang Hungtai clearly had no intention to make things easy for listeners when crafting the monstrous void, as the dual-disc bloodletting offers little room for air once exploring its depths. But if Drifters / Love Is the Devil were any more accessible an experience than it already is, it would be nowhere near as effective in translating the pain and distress that Dirty Beaches is trying to express throughout the album’s hazy, neon-lit expanse. Though it’s tough to get a sense of what exactly it is that’s causing all of this suffering, the details don’t seem so important in the end, as Drifters / Love Is the Devil is the sound of pure isolation and dread wrapped in one bleary, beautiful package.