Hopelessness is the best-case scenario on Lower Dens’ third album, Escape From Evil. Cynical listeners will accuse the band of romanticizing agony and pain through their hazy, gloomy post-punk, but closer attention reveals deeper ambitions. The “evil” of the album title is many things: depression, the death of love, a nightmarish past, a bad omen for the future, the slow, inevitable passage of time. It’s overwhelming and unavoidable, lending the name a note of disingenuousness or, if Lower Dens showed any sense of humor at all, facetiousness. Singer Jana Hunter summarizes it nicely on “Your Heart Still Beating:” “All of my fears/ Coming to life.” Even sunnier tracks like “To Die in L.A.” stay mostly in the shadows, with lines like, “Here I’m not crying/ I’m just glad to be alive” and an atypically uplifting refrain the only hint of optimism. In Lower Dens’ world, happiness is fleeting and intangible. Evil is everywhere.

Each song relies on the same musical elements: repetitive synthesizer phrases, steady drums, short eruptions of guitar and Hunter’s gently sweeping vocals. The textures of Joy Division and New Order loom large over Lower Dens as they have over indie rock for decades, but the band has no desire to pull themselves out of this lulling groove. Opening track “Sucker’s Shangri-La” teases big chords, but the song’s progression comes slowly and Hunter’s delicate vocals, sung one syllable at a time, push it into more reserved territory. The band toys with stronger dynamics on songs like “Your Heart Still Beating,” where the chorus surges from a quieter verse, but once it peaks, it only slowly devolves back into a maudlin calm. Like the emotions they convey, Lower Dens’ music dulls over time by hitting the same beats again and again without the evocative theatricality of their influences.

Any political or emotional message that Hunter aims to impart is diminished by ineffectual, overly familiar methodology. “Non Grata” is the album’s poppiest cut despite its middling tempo and dour mood; the mobile, bright hook of “Company” only opens up after its static verses; “I Am the Earth,” one of the album’s low points, slogs by with a dead tempo and no interesting developments. Those searching for a modern imitation of dreary early ‘80s post-punk will find Escape From Evil a safe bet in more ways than one, but don’t expect the vitality of that movement’s best (or worst) releases.

At times, it’s hard to picture Hunter doing anything but pointing to the mass destruction of the human race and saying matter-of-factly, “Isn’t that something?” Escape From Evil is not a cathartic or satisfying record. There is no distinguishable tonal or thematic arc. There’s little respite from Hunter’s doom and gloom, but the music doesn’t evoke any harrowing emotion. It doesn’t radiate absolution, anger, sadness or resentfulness, but eases the listener into a state of deadened feelings. Whatever evil Lower Dens means to help us escape, it’s hard to get motivated when the resounding mood is apathy. Yes, we’re all vulnerable and at times powerless to the controlling factors of our world, and Hunter is committed to pushing back against them. But a mood piece like Escape From Evil doesn’t provide a compelling reason for us to do the same. It merely observes. What can we do other than look sad and reply, “So what?”

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