Lower Dens - The Competition
Sep 11, 2019
Lower Dens have slowly been embracing more of a pop influence over their past few albums, and now it's paid off in full on The Competition. The beats are a lot of fun on the surface, adding glitzier synths and more upbeat rhythms on the whole. This change to a more exciting sound could've resulted in vapid songs with no replayability, but Jana Hunter's writing and singing still have that knack for meditation that made earlier Lower Dens songs memorable. Jana seems more free here than they've sounded before on any past record, and the lyrics are all about change (good or bad) and pushing through. It all adds up to their most fun and potentially best album yet.

The songs that fully embrace pop and synthpop are 100% glorious. "Young Republicans" is an instant banger, complete with a commanding synth line and memorable lyrics about cannibal conservatives. "Hand of God" has a very bouncy beat that never quits, only matched by Jana's fantastic vocals. "I Drive" has a sort of skeezy rhythm, perfect for night driving through neon lights, while "Simple Life" glitters like something right out of the 1980's. The drums and guitars are quicker and more dynamic than previous Lower Dens albums, and it's a good change. The band sensibly updated the organic elements, as their past dream pop aesthetic would've been awkward against such big synthesizers. A lesser band couldn't handle such a shift, but Lower Dens make it sound easy.

Even with more of an emphasis on the glitzier synthpop, Lower Dens hasn't given up on the melodic, meditative dream pop of Nootropics. Opener "Galapagos" drifts along at a lazier pace, but the added synth elements texture it different than something like "Alphabet Song". "Real Thing" is most akin to Lower Dens' past, and the melody is pretty good. Then there's "Two Faced Love", a song that seems to be back in the dream pop aesthetic but slowly builds to a burst of synths at the hook. It's a wonderful mix of old and new for the band. Some of the other slower moments are the album's least engaging, like the organically played but ultimately snooze-inducing closer "In Your House". It's surprisingly sparse compared to what precedes it, and peters the album off in a mediocre way. Other like "Buster Keaton" or "Empire Sundown" are fine songs but nowhere as good as one like "Young Republicans".

The choice to put Jana right at the forefront of the album art is definitely purposeful, as their vocals are irreplacable. Songs like "Brains" or "Electric Current" benefited from Jana's drawl, but the bigger noise of The Competition needed something bigger. The vocals on "Young Republicans", "Simple Life", "Hand of God" and more are more than big enough to fill these shoes, with memorable hooks worth singing along to. Jana has gone through plenty of personal change over the past few years, and that's something accounted for in the lyrics. There's plenty of socio-political undertones as well, but they're handled tastefully, and even turned into anthems. Never before has social commentary about how Republican policies eat others alive been so uniquely catchy.

Of all the bands Baltimore has pumped out over the past few decades, Lower Dens has long been the most overlooked. Their music was familiar yet always distinctive, and through the changes in sound and style they've remained remarkably themselves. So long as they keep morphing, evolving, and chugging along making great synthpop, I'll keep listening.

Standouts: Galapagos, Hand of God, Two Faced Love, Young Republicans, Real Thing, I Drive, Simple Life
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