Dott calls out oppressive social norms while critiquing the narratives blaming women for inequality.
Reproductive choice is now a legal option in Ireland. Last month, the country voted to overturn the abortion ban, signifying a monumental political and social shift. Garage-pop band Dott’s newest release, Heart Swell, is inspired by Ireland’s recent activist movements. The album radiates political intensity while maintaining a boisterous energy. Dott centralizes the debates that frame feminist politics while calling for empathy and social progress, making Heart Swell a cunningly subversive political album shrouded in infectiously catchy pop tracks.
Prior to recording, Dott frontwoman Anna McCarthy spent time on the Ireland’s west coast, and the sea inspired the demos that ultimately led to Heart Swell. The album’s title is clearly a double meaning for individual growth and the movement of waves. Both connote the album’s perspective on the country’s social progress and personal individuality. As depicted in “Swim,” “Floating Arrows” and “Bleached Blonde,” the sea’s movements and waves symbolize emotional unmooring while the shore represents stability. This duality is evident in “Swim” and the title track. In “Heart Swell,” McCarthy’s repetition of the lyrics “I found you” is accented by vocal echoes, which resemble the sound of waves breaking on the shore. This creates a type of pop energy while establishing that emotional security is often breached by turmoil.
“Bleached Blonde” seems innocuous at first: The lyrics depict a young girl searching for surfing equipment. However, McCarthy’s sparkling voice rising over Laura Finnegan’s snarling bass are the first aural clues of the track’s depth. “Bleached Blonde” asserts that persistence is paramount when “things don’t seem as easy as they always used to be.” Indeed, the track’s protagonist and McCarthy herself are not pro surfers, but “Bleached Blonde” contends that grit outweighs perfection.
“Floating Arrows” unearths riot grrrl muscle as explosive instrumentation accentuates layered vocal harmonies. The contrast between the lead and backing vocals creates a sonic dimension strengthened by Evan O’Connor’s resounding guitar. Much as Tanya Donelly and Kathleen Hanna used their crystalline voices to convey narrative nuance, Dott demonstrates a similar counterpoint between brashness and tenderness. Yet where riot grrrls used inflection and pitch to evoke emotion, Dott’s vocals are almost monotone. McCarthy rarely raises her volume or cadence. For an album that agitates for resistance, the vocals are surprisingly tame.
“Like a Girl” pays tribute to the Irish activists fighting for women’s rights. Here, persistence becomes resistance: “What they didn’t expect when push came to shove/ No fuss, not afraid to play rough/ Gotta ask yourself if you’re strong enough/ Like a girl.” Dott’s lyrics associate strength with femininity, endowing the phrase “like a girl” with power, which is musically restated by O’Connor’s rampageous guitar and Donal Finnegan’s uproarious percussion.
At the track’s halfway mark, the vocals for “Like a Girl” cut out and the ear is attuned to an instrumental cacophony. The disharmony represents a counter-narrative to using “like a girl” as a pejorative. Sadie Dupuis, Speedy Ortiz’s lead vocalist and guitarist, lends her expertise to this track, her poetry background offering an appreciation of jarring contrasts. Dott understands femininity as overtly strong and political thus creating a clash with dominant gender norms. Dott’s use of musical and literary cacophony personifies the dissonance incited by resistance movements.
“You Don’t Have To” considers consent and safety as McCarthy starts the song with “these double standards keep you guessing.” The track “Self-Help” centralizes the value of self-care while “Do Ya?” challenges the development of mindfulness. Juxtaposing “Do Ya?” with the tracks “How Do I Feel?” and “18” creates a defiant call for women’s agency. The album ends with “Wedding Song,” a contemplative examination of privilege in the wake of legalizing same sex marriage in Ireland. Throughout Heart Swell, Dott calls out oppressive social norms while critiquing the narratives blaming women for inequality. It’s more than an album; it’s an agent of change.