Hippie music for people who hate hippies.
The Dream Syndicate was one of the most interesting bands of the ‘80s, equal parts jangle-pop, lo-fi, post-punk, neo-psychedelia, garage rock, folk, goth and more. They were a kind of reboot of the Velvet Underground sound, compounded with the noisier elements of bands like The Byrds—hypnotic, repetitive, guitar-driven grooves with enough melody and menace to keep things interesting, not to mention healthy doses of feedback and tripped-out soloing. Hippie music for people who hate hippies.
Most importantly, singer and guitarist Steve Wynn made for an unusual and charismatic frontman, bringing a Bob Dylan-meets-Johnny Rotten vibe to a strange, compelling set of songs that managed to retain mystery and distance even at their most emotionally direct. The Dream Syndicate were also an extremely influential band—listen to the opening of “Halloween” and you hear Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, Pavement, and so much more indie and alternative music since the early ‘90s.
Their first album in 29 years, How Did I Find Myself Here?, is an excellent return to form; a fresh and startling album that sounds like barely any time has gone by. The band always had a kind of swagger, powered by Wynn’s detached cool, blistering guitars and the rhythm section’s dark and swampy drive (think Creedence with leather pants and black shades). Thankfully, that swagger is here in spades.
REM-meets-Bunnymen opener “Filter Me Through You” sets the tone with its steady hum and melodic leads. Their talent for simple, catchy riffs is further showcased in the epic, slow-burning second track, “Glide,” which features some of Wynn’s best singing on the album and characteristically ambiguous, dreamy lyrics— “I just glide/ Higher and higher/ I don’t have to come down.” Mark Walton’s bass playing propels the song and muted, psychedelic soloing lends the sound a washed-out sublimity.
Elsewhere, there are more straight-ahead rockers: “Out of My Head” sounds like The Dream Syndicate of yore; the ominous, dissonant “80 West,” a twisted cousin of the Modern Lovers song “Roadrunner” filtered through The Fall; and “The Circle,” which is total guitar overdrive.
Lyrically, these songs have the kind of trippy but direct feel of the best TDS songs, especially “The Circle.” Walton and drummer Dennis Duck keep things rock-steady so that the guitar players can go wild— Steve Wynn and new axeman Jason Victor. At certain points, it becomes apparent how much the noise freakouts of bands like Yo La Tengo come from Wynn and co. When they let loose, they still sound as urgent as ever.
The band’s more ethereal side returns on “Like Mary,” which rides a quiet groove with swirls of guitar in the background to tell the tale of a woman escaping her life. The 11-minute title track has a more syncopated feel and features unexpected keyboards and jammier elements slowly building in intensity. Lyrics occasionally emerge, often running the risk of sounding banal yet are carried by Wynn’s idiosyncratic enunciation—“But I couldn’t know/ What I’d laid out below/ So I knew I had to go.”
They are simple lyrics, but the way they are sung make them feel like they have emotional depth; taken together as a whole, they extend narrative elements that have always been present in Wynn’s songs: a mash-up of LA noir, Beat poetry, car songs, Americana and acid culture, not to mention a kind of proto-emo emotional immediacy (again, complicated by Wynn’s somewhat detached delivery).
The final song, the gothiest number on the album and reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine is “Kendra’s Dream.” It is the perfect way to end the album, at once pleasing and disorienting (it sounds like it could be sung at the end of one of the recent episodes of Twin Peaks).
The most notable thing about this album is that the widely reported fact that it is the first Dream Syndicate album in 29 years is the least interesting thing about it. Plain and simple, this is one of the very best rock albums of the year. It makes so much contemporary rock look contrived and downright silly. Don’t call it a comeback—The Dream Syndicate never left.