Pierce’s queerness is integral to Brutalism’s articulation of longing.
And then there was only one Drum left.
The Drums grew up out of a childhood friendship between Jonny Pierce and Jacob Graham, and other members of the band joined around the duo. But the band slowly dwindled back down to Pierce and Graham, before Graham’s departure in 2016. That was just a few months before the release of The Drums’ Abysmal Thoughts, an album still bearing traces of Graham’s sonic and lyrical influence.
On Brutalism, the latest LP by The Drums, Pierce’s newfound solo status stands front and center. This is an album about the unadorned self utterly on display. Careful listeners will recognize that flecks of this subject matter were already embedded in certain lines from Abysmal Thoughts. On that album Pierce admitted, “You left your t-shirt under the bed we shared together/ I put it over my face.” It’s a lyric that reappears on the new album, both in its cover image that shows Pierce holding a shirt to his half-open mouth and in the lyrics of the title track (“When I’m alone at night and the TV is on/ I grab your T-shirt and put it over my face”). While this repetition could come off as superfluous, it acts instead as a declarative affirmation of vulnerability. This is a group of songs soaked in the discomfort of reality, particularly in the embarrassments surrounding desire and emotional need. “With just one kiss, I forget I hate myself,” Pierce sings, for example, on sun-soaked, motorbike-velocity closer “Blip of Joy.”
Pierce’s queerness is integral to Brutalism’s articulation of longing. The album quite literally shows him embracing himself, and the backstory here involves Pierce’s religious upbringing that disallowed expressions of anything other than heterosexual devotion. His past hangs over him, but Pierce wields his earnest voice against it like a luminescent hex. This is clearest on starlit “Nervous,” where the overall effect is that of a choir-less choirboy, obliviously singing still. “Being nervous around you/ Oh, that’s something new/ That’s something new,” he intones. He uses his voice, marked in equal parts by honest-to-God loneliness and soothing tenderness, to achieve the album’s inimitable bitter-sweetness.
This bittersweet quality is not only present in Brutalism’s lyrics but also in its lavish production, gummier and glossier than on any Drums record before it. Even the few songs that feature elements of surf rock give a slicked-back-hair glisten with the help of subtle electronic touches. “Kiss It Away,” for instance, includes an interpolation of distorted vocal morsels that’s especially poignant: they appear only briefly and tremble to suggest choked-down tears. An actual choir of children appears near the end of breezily enigmatic ”Loner,” an Oliver Twist-style, Britpop jam. “I have never had a home,” the kids sing, before a gently reverberating acoustic guitar and the sound of lapping waves carry the tune to its conclusion. Rather than surf, the album reflects on surfing while staring out into the ocean from a quiet beach.
The solitary, reflective nature of the album leaves listeners wondering if there’s a future for The Drums. Brutalism feels like the end of a fulfilling project, whose throbbing heart Pierce has discovered by scouring away the layers of reticence and posturing. The band’s name may gesture towards rock and roll’s percussive backbone, but it turns out that the aching rhythm of its music was Pierce’s all along.