There was a time, not so long ago, when pop culture and politics went hand in hand. The political landscape of America in the late 1960s ushered in an era where pop music, previously innocuous love songs and the like, became politically charged. The messengers of the revolution were not only renegade political figures but the times pop stars. Since then politics and pop music have been steadily hand in hand and now in 2019 more so than ever. The divisive political atmosphere of our current times, while frightening and terrible, have gifted us with a new generation of protest songs. This tradition continues with the new album, The Competition, from Baltimore’s Lower Dens.
It’s been four years since the band, led by vocalist and songwriter Jana Hunter, released their last critically acclaimed album Escape From Evil and the wait was most definitely worth it. Hunter imbues their new collection of songs with an urgency that is not only satisfyingly hooky but also personal and political. The name of the album refers to what they say as, “Competition is the driving force of modern capitalism, and the title (of the album) is Hunters term for a socio-psychological phenomenon this generates, a kind of psychosis that accelerates our insecurities and anxieties to the point of total overload, corroding our intimacies, our communities, and our senses of self.” The concept is very heady but the way it’s presented is, at times, dense, pithy and startlingly beautiful.
The Competition kicks off with “Galapagos”, a shimmeringly perfect introduction to the songs that will follow. Hunter’s voice is so assured and ties together the thickness of the production, where the chiming guitars, layers of synths and drum machines all compete for the listeners attention. “Hand Of God” follows with something more tangible, it’s bopping drums and bright synths immediately capturing you. Whereas “Galapagos” came out of the gates in a impenetrable haze, “Hand Of God” opens things up and allows the listener to sink into Hunter’s wonderful vocal melodies and the hookiness of the tracks pop arrangement. “Two Faced Love” adds another dimension of heaviness to the albums first act. The chorus drenched guitar lines echoing 90s dream pop acts like Cocteau Twins and Lush but the songs real hook comes in as Hunter, in a long held drawl, sings the tracks title and a darkly arpeggiated synth builds with the drums into the heaviest of post chorus refrains. The record’s first single “Young Republicans” shares the peppiness of “Hand Of God” but almost seems to double down on that aspect of the production to counter the song’s political message or maybe it is to enhance it. Regardless it’s one of this year’s best protest songs and dance tracks.
The proceedings take a nice breather after the intensity of “Young Republicans” with “The Real Thing”. The track moves languidly but stunningly and when Hunter sings, “I don’t want to be possessed by memories, I want to be young and want to dance with everything and I don’t care about the real thing”, it’s simultaneously freeing and heartbreaking. “Buster Keaton” keeps things at a relative pace, introducing some lovely, airy synths onto the album and some contains some of the records funniest and more visceral lyrics when Hunter sings, “I stood there stupefied by your pretty face/And spitting blood onto your shirt and your pretty face/I said I might love you.” Empire Sundown shows Hunter tackling the overthrowing of the plutocracy. Over zig zagging synths, Hunter sings, “They don’t care what they do to us, my friend” but without any resignation. It’s a wake up call. The album closer “In Your House” almost seems like it came from a different session, being the most organic sounding song on the record. Piano and live drums buoy Hunters thoughtful vocals while French Horn drifts in and out making a welcome appearance.
The Competition is definitely a record to sit with for awhile, deciphering Hunter’s lyrics and settling into the songs frenetic production. Although, the record is jam packed with ideas both worldly and intimately personal, it isn’t a super challenging listen as Hunter has allowed a lightness in its capturing. Besides Doomsquad’s wonderful Let Yourself Be Seen, The Competition is this years ultimate dance floor filling protest album.
review by Adam Fink