Words || Cameron Colwell
My initial error in trying to appreciate The Drums’s latest album, Abysmal Thoughts, was expecting it to be Encyclopedia, their last album, but in a sort of Part II.
Wallowed in existentialism and maximalist synthesiser usage, the emotional vibe in Encylopedia happened to resonate deeply with what I was feeling at the time. Critically divisive as it eschewed the usual cruisy pop hooks and was deeper and darker than other albums, it was also the first album of the band that I think could really be classified as a ‘queer album’; exploring Jonny Pierce’s past as a gay kid with a homophobic pastor for a father. Lovers who had once been without gender were then referenced explicitly as men. In particular, ‘I Hope Time Doesn’t Change Him’ is mentioned in that album’s track-by-track commentary as being “the first time that we’ve approached homosexual love in an honest way.’ On the same commentary, Pierce said “You’ll hear synth arpeggios and synth pads and on top of those glimmering, glistening elements, you’ll hear a guitar that sounds like
a dying cow, and that’s how we wanted it”. The Drums’ unique blend of dismal melancholy and hedonistic joy had reached its apotheosis.
Now, with Abysmal Thoughts, the contrast is still there, only now Pierce is alone. After multiple disputes the band became a duo, with him and Jacob Graham for
Encyclopedia, and now for the band’s fourth album, The Drums is a solo act. Other personal elements inform the music: Pierce recently went through a divorce with his husband, and is now with model Keon Smith, who features in the first music video of the album, ‘Blood Under my Belt’, and is on both the album cover and that song’s single cover.
As far as the personal life of Jonny Pierce matters to the music, one of the delights of Encyclopedia was its emotional honesty and it is one of its few unique aspects that’s carried over into Abysmal Thoughts, his most personal album yet.
‘Head of the Horse’ is filled with images of a haunting rural childhood and references to his family’s belief in the healing power of anointed oil; the sexually allusive ‘Blood Under My Belt’ seems to about the residual feelings after a stormy relationship breakup; and the first song of the album, ‘Mirror’, Jonny sings of looking into the titular object: “I ask myself, who are you now?” Not to say that
the album is mired in angst.
The end of a relationship brims with possibility just as much as it does pain, a vibe continually embodied in looping upbeat guitar and pop beats. In the title track, which finishes the album, it’s clear ‘Abysmal Thoughts’ are something to move forward through, no matter how much they hurt. There’s even a backing chorus of whistles, in something of a throw-back to one of The Drums’s initial hits, ‘Saddest Summer’. While it never feels stale, the album seems sprinkled with similar familiar touches, almost, at times, feeling like a retrospective of where The Drums has been.
Is Abysmal Thoughts any good? It’s probably the most technically proficient work The Drums has produced. Being a solo act has brought the band to a new level of
clarity, both lyrically and instrumentally. It may lack the bombast and ambition of Encyclopedia, but The Drums feel more refined than ever before. A minor qualm might be that occasionally, there is a lapse into self-indulgence: maybe ‘Your Tenderness’ would’ve been more of an iconic track if it hadn’t gone on for five minutes, much of it spent on repeating a refrain that the out-there saxophones don’t quite level out, but who cares? Once again, The Drums have proved their sound as a shining star in the indie pop constellation.