Drowners seems to have spent the two years since its garage rock debut listening to Interpol and planning a trip to Sam’s Town.
One of the most enduring myths of rock ‘n’ roll is the sophomore slump: a young band has years to write, perform and perfect its first record. But once the world sets its eyes on the group, it only has 18 months to produce a second. It’s an easy if often unfair way to fault new albums from buzzing young bands, ignoring artistic progression. Yet with Drowners’ second album, On Desire, is it really so unfair?
Drowners seems to have spent the two years since its garage rock debut listening to Interpol and planning a trip to Sam’s Town. On Desire is a more dance-punk direction for the New York-by-way-of Wales rockers. The band has ditched its more free-roaming, Arctic Monkeys-indebted ways for lightly-rolling tension and an electric grid of stylish panic. It’s a fun album even if it’s hard to reconcile that the same band that made Babyshambles-light two years ago now traffics in stuttering new wave tracks like “Troublemaker” and layering gothy keyboards over machine-tight drumming on “Human Remains.” The band has traded its fuck-all sneer for a blank look of cool disaffection.
A big part of this evolution can be credited to lead singer Matthew Hitt, who has shifted from a UK croon to something closer to the dramatic vocalists of immediate post-Strokes America. Hitt peppers tracks like “Dreams Don’t Count” and “Another Go” with a Brandon Flowers-like theatricality that reaches its height on “Pick up the Pace.” This is the only song on the album that finds the over-the-top singing matched to appealing pulpy soap opera lyrics: “I have searched all the terraces for you/ We’ll never get through anything if we move at this rate/ Oh darling, you’ve got to pick up the pace.” It’s first-rate cornball, and it works like a charm.
Tracks like “Another Go” and “Trust the Tension” find the group putting out dance-friendly third-generation new wave for the next batch of sexy, fashionable people on the nation’s coasts. Like The Killers before them, Drowners distill the most consumable parts of post-punk and feeding them to the young, creating another breadcrumb to lead people back to influences like the Cure and New Order. It’s a tried and true formula that the band executes with a competence and flair that suggests this new direction may yet sustain a career.
In a different era, a record like On Desire would seem like a genre-hopping cash in, the sound of a young band jumping on the latest trend rather than exercising genuine creativity. Yet Drowners project enough life and snap into its music that it’s easier to believe the band is simply growing away from its past rather than flailing for a future. The album might leave early adopters in the dust, but builds a foundation that screams for a third LP. This is the sound of surviving in the modern world.