Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Damnwells - The Damnwells

The Damnwells are one of the best bands in the world, but they'll never be recognized as such. Since 2000, this Brooklyn outfit has walked a line between power pop and roots rock with aplomb (with a trace or two of The Replacements thrown in for good measure) . They pen songs that attach themselves to your brain through catchy choruses, and then kick your lights out with devastating lyrics. It's a formula that has worked well on the band's previous four albums, and it's one that continues to work well on their brand-new, PledgeMusic-funded self-titled disc. Furthermore, since the new album is the first Damnwells LP to feature all four original members since 2006's Air Stereo, it has an eventful heft to it that maybe their past few records haven't. After all, the "reunion" album narrative is always something that fans and publications love to latch onto.

The odd thing is, many listeners—at least around these parts—might actually be more familiar with the more recent, partial version of The Damnwells than with the original four-member lineup. Personally, I'd never heard a peep about the band until sometime in the spring of 2009, when a Free Music Friday thread right here on encouraged me to check out some band that, supposedly, sounded a lot like Ryan Adams. Naturally, the combination of "free" and "Ryan Adams" had me clicking the link and hitting "Save Target As" faster than you could say "Whiskeytown."

The album I downloaded that day was called One Last Century, and it was the third record from The Damnwells. I wouldn't learn until years later that this record didn't actually feature the full Damnwells band, and for all intents and purposes, I didn't care. What I cared about were the songs, tuneful and regretful beauties that soundtracked my final weeks of high school. I was even more taken with the band's 2011 LP, No One Listens to the Band Anymore, which had a lushness that made it perfect for filling up that summer's endless parade of sweltering night drives. I've also gone back to the band's earlier records—the ones made with the original four-man lineup—but while 2003's Bastards of the Beat and 2006's Air Stereo are both very solid records, I personally think this band hit their songwriting peak without the original lineup.

With that said, it's always great when a band gets back together, especially when the reasons for doing so are as artistically-driven as they are here. The Damnwells reunites four guys who used to play in a band together. But in the nine years since they last made an album, and in the seven years since they parted ways, those guys have gone through "cross-country moves, grad school, marriage, divorce, and a couple of corporate jobs." In other words, a lot of things have changed, and on this record, The Damnwells are reconnecting with a completely different perspective than when they left.

The resulting album is a record about rude awakenings. It's about getting out of bed in your mid-30s and realizing that your youth is not just gone; it's downright dead and buried in the backyard. "Give it up son, you're just too old to die young," frontman Alex Dezen exclaims triumphantly late in the disc, during the horn-laced anthem "Too Old to Die Young." It's a bluntly delivered proclamation, but one that makes complete sense. Everyone thinks they'll reach this point in life where they will genuinely feel like a grown-up, like like they have their shit together and actually know what they're doing. But that one singular moment, where you pass from youth to adulthood, it doesn't exist. There's no shiny highway sign telling you that you only have a few miles left to go and had better make the best of it before you're old and past your prime. "Don't get me wrong, there was greatness getting wasted at the top of our lungs," Dezen shouts in "Too Old to Die Young." But as Don Henley once sang, "those days are gone, you should just let 'em go." The challenge is in knowing when letting go is appropriate.

On this record, it seems that the "letting go," or the end of youth, coincides with the death of a serious relationship—in this case, the end of Dezen's marriage. The Damnwells could accurately be categorized as a divorce album, with many of these songs dealing with the ragged ghosts of a former love. On the surging "Kentexas," for instance, Dezen is musing about being a bad husband; on the 90s-rock-flavored "The Girl That's Not in Love with You," he talks himself through the surreal realization that the woman he married is "somebody else's baby now"; and on "Lost," he's "just another sucker feeling so blue," wandering drunken corridors of nighttime loneliness, and wondering if things are ever going to feel stable again.

Make no mistake, there's a dizzying, disorienting haze of heartbreak in these songs, but it's not played in the same way that such emotions often are in rock music. Two years ago, Jimmy Eat World called Damage a grown-up break-up album, but this is a grown-up break-up album. These songs never wallow in self-pity. There's no blame, no rage, no "you broke my heart, you bitch" vindictiveness. This ain't early-2000s pop punk. Dezen allows himself plenty of sadness, regret, and drunken reflection, but these songs are also tinged with respect and acceptance, and with the realization that, sometimes, relationships just fall apart—despite all best intentions to keep them alive.

All of that is encapsulated in "None of These Things," a soul-shredding acoustic ballad that provides The Damnwells with its parting shot. Remember when I said Dezen's songs kick your lights out? This one is the epitome of that, with lyrics that will make your heart hurt even if you haven't suffered through a breakup in years. "There are train lines, there are bus rides/That will take you back and forth from bad to better lives," goes the chorus. "There are love songs, and there are desperate lives/But none of these things will keep you here/'Cause none of these things will make you love me." The album ends here, with this song, simply because there is nothing that could reasonably come after it. "None of these things will make you love me." With a realization like that, there can be nothing left to say, nothing left to fix, nothing left to fight for. The only thing to do is walk away, and the song's abrupt ending conveys that painful moment perfectly.

It's honestly very strange that The Damnwells has been billed so heavily as a reunion of the band's original lineup, as it feels more like an Alex Dezen solo LP than anything else. In fact, two of the recordings ("She Goes Down" and "None of These Things") were pulled directly from Dezen's solo Bedhead EPs from last year, and presumably don't feature the band at all. The album also boasts some of the rawest production of the group's career, to the point where even rockers like "Money and Shiny Things (And Drugs)" or "Wreck You" have a more live or analog feel to them. Those songs are both good, but after an album as full-bodied and alive as No One Listens to the Band Anymore, it's disappointing that The Damnwells frequently sounds like a collection of demos. Granted, Dezen's divorce was naturally going to have a strong influence on both the theme and sound of this record, and maybe the rawer atmosphere is just what made sense. After all, it's only when the band tries to get away from Dezen's personal introspection—on "Kill Me," a novelty song that trashes modern reality TV culture in the style of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire"—that the album truly stumbles.

But even if The Damnwells feels a bit anticlimactic as a big reunion album, even if it isn't quite as good as either One Last Century or No One Listens to the Band Anymore, and even if it could have been improved substantially through the addition of a few more EP songs (particularly "Along the Way," a bittersweet Boyhood parallel that stands as arguably the best song Alex Dezen has ever written), it still largely succeeds on its own terms. Rarely are break-up albums this complicated, stark, or unrelenting in their portrait of love gone awry; rarely can songwriters offer so many thought-provoking doses of reality within the confines of instantly memorable melodies; and rarely can bands fall short of expectation, but still deliver records that merit a claim like the one I used to start this review: that The Damnwells are one of the best bands in the world. They are, and it's nice to take them back.

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