Heads Up shows a band fascinated by pushing their limits.
If one were to judge by Warpaint’s lead single, “New Song,” one might make the assumption that the quartet have made the leap to pop on their third album, Heads Up. But we all know that saying about assuming. The glimmering synths, dance beat and pop melody of that song is by far outweighed by scuzzy electronics throughout the 11-track album, but that’s a given considering the album was produced by Jacob Bercovici of Julian Casablancas’ The Voidz. Electro-pop is certainly a major influence, but the driving force on most tracks is the dark combination of drummer Stella Mozgawa and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg.
The opening duo of “Whiteout” and “By Your Side” makes a real case for all previous Depeche Mode comparisons. The former winds itself around light guitar work from Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman, testing the line between groovy rhythm and overwhelming arrangements in Mozgawa’s stuttering beat and Lindberg’s strutting bass. While Kokal and Wayman harmonize, Mozgawa and Lindberg do just as much work egging each other on with the rhythm. “By Your Side” takes a slightly different approach with its programmed drums, but the atmospheric distortions bring an entirely new twist to Warpaint’s slow jams. The propulsive finale of cymbals, frenzied synths and wailing even shows some trance influences.
And Heads Up as a whole oozes this dynamic energy. Case in point is the meandering guitar-led track “The Stall.” The beginning is nothing but crisp vocals from Kokal and the clean bass recording, then the song adopts a bit of a dance beat and adds a funky guitar line and breathy layered vocals. Several songs here have this ability to slowly morph into something totally different and unexpected. “So Good” opens on that same funky guitar, but its fairly simple dance beat and groovy bassline turns it into this dream-pop/funk hybrid. And “Don’t Wanna,” most of all, cheats toward gloomy low-energy lo-fi before Mozgawa introduces bongo-like percussion to bolster the track’s tapping programmed beat.
Lyrically, this album backs up its scuzzy distortion with deadpan disaffection. From the first line of “Whiteout,” “You wouldn’t know it, but you’re really in your prime,” there’s this throughline of subconscious self-awareness. The emotions that Kokal and Wayman touch on speak to a general lack of direction – something that plenty people feel in their day to day lives – but they frame these existential woes through a positive lens. “The Stall” is outfront with it, the line “Letting go’s not giving in” leading into the chorus “So break down/ You know, you need, you want to.” The exception on the album is perhaps when Wayman sings, “Don’t wanna defend myself” on the repetitive “Don’t Wanna.” It seems as though it’s less her admitting that she’s content to let people walk all over her as that’s just an unfortunate inevitability, but it’s hard to pull a clear message out of such an ambiguous song.
As an addition to Warpaint’s catalog, Heads Up shows a band fascinated by pushing their limits. Even within the context of the album, the quartet plays with their range, including somewhat more typical lo-fi tracks, electro-pop and the synth sheen of “New Song.” The choice to end the album on the acoustic finger-plucked “Today Dear” is, in itself, a gutsy – and confident – move from a band that could go anywhere from here.