The Underdog is Watson’s most consistent album as GUM.
Jay Watson knows how to keep busy. When he isn’t on tour as Tame Impala’s keyboardist, or in the studio working with his own band Pond, he’s creating retro futuristic psych rock under his solo moniker, GUM. His past four solo albums have seen him evolve from straightforward rock into a groovy dance-rock hybrid and his latest release, The Underdog, finds him tapping into a more organic-sounding vein of dance and modern psychedelia.
Unlike the proggy wonkiness of Pond’s freewheeling psychedelia, Watson elects to take a more modest approach to his own music — these are tiny, intimate pop tunes that feel more personal and approachable compared to Pond’s increasingly expansive soundscapes. This relaxed atmosphere is matched by Watson’s sun-baked production, not quite lo-fi but effused with a familiar tape warmth to it all. At its best, The Underdog cruises along at a laid-back pace, eager to impress, but in an unabashed fashion.
“The Blue Marble” alternates between a woozy verse and a pumping, rhythmically focused chorus before closing things out with a dreamy coda of synths squiggles and booming bass. Many of Watson’s past highlights as GUM have been grounded in a solid groove, though his carefully set arrangements in The Underdog allow these rhythms to breathe and guide the song instead of getting lost in a maze of sounds. “After All (From the Sun)”’s fuzzy synths and Watson’s reverb-heavy vocals sound appropriately dazed and faded as they glide through guitar riffage and phased out drum rolls. By switching between drum machines and live drums, the song’s chorus packs a heavy wallop.
More than before, Watson has focused his lyrics on his own personal insecurities and doubts. “Waiting a lifetime to finally win is the ultimate prize,” declares Watson in the album’s title track, before warning that “There’s always something in the way/ And that’s not gonna change,” over gleaming synths and airy guitar leads. Later, in “Trying My Best,” Watson continually chants the song’s title track over tense and foreboding chords, finally admitting that he’s “trying my best to be good” in the most endearing fashion.
“S.I.A.” and “The Fear” are more overtly bouncing with hand clapped rhythms and tight synth arp patterns that gurgle and flex around chiming cowbells. The latter, probably one of Watson’s most ambitious arrangement as a solo artist, frequently detours into smoky rooms of echoing saxophones and slowly panned synth showcases. Meanwhile, “S.I.A.” transforms a frantic disco beat into a krautrock drone, wonky and deflated synths echoing their responses to Watson via offbeat jamming.
Some songs drag a bit — “Serotonin” and “Rehearsed in a Dream” both start off rather slow and take time to fully open up — but there’s almost always a handful of compelling elements to keep things interesting. “Couldn’t See Past My Ego” takes an acoustic intro and unexpectedly opens up to hazy chorus full of harmonies and rhythm driving shakers. For an album that clocks in at around 40 minutes, The Underdog rarely lags and, for the most part, is a streamlined listen throughout.
While there are no massive highlights, not one particular song that captures the album’s essence better than the others, The Underdog is Watson’s most consistent album as GUM. By focusing his songwriting and cleaning up his arrangements, Watson has established his solo portfolio as another compelling piece of the Perth, AU psychedelia puzzle. His down to earth approach to everything may not result in the flashiest music, but there is a lovingly dedicated feeling to The Underdog. More importantly, it leaves the impression that Watson is still gearing up for something bigger and greater.