When the lead singer of The Drums, Jonny Pierce, described waking up at 8 p.m. and performing at The Black Cat on May 12, he used the word “dreamlike.” Ironically his new album, “Brutalism,” is anything but dreamlike. The Drums have released vastly different albums over the past decade, but “Brutalism” came as a shocking electric return from their 2017 album, “Abysmal Thoughts.” The new album reaches for an era of The Drums as a band with new writers and producers Pierce brought after “Abysmal Thoughts” when he became the sole standing member of the band.
All of the members of The Drums, besides Pierce, left the band to pursue other careers (including puppetry). The leaving members seem to influence Pierce’s demeanor and attitude. At The Black Cat show, Pierce may as well have been a recording. There was no audience engagement and the drummer, bassist and guitarist were several feet behind Pierce. The show seemed to be a Jonny Pierce (and The Drums) show.
However, while the qualities “Brutalism” lacks are palpable, it is not a bad album per se. The electronica shines through, departing from the lo-fi sound, which explores something that is stylistically quite refreshing. The opening track, “Pretty Cloud,” has their signature repetitive chorus but strays from the typical opening, choosing to emphasize Pierce’s voice over a crunchy electric track.
“Body Chemistry” stays true to Pierce’s past work as well, keeping consistency with the chorus while the lyrics actually speak to something larger than Pierce’s usual topic: his current love interest. “Body chemistry/Unrelenting/Unforgiving,” he sings, calling out his depression and himself, realizing that materialism like the “nice glass of wine/And some quality time,” won’t help him fight his own body chemistry.
“626 Bedford Avenue” is where the production begins to fail. Pierce’s voice has far too much presence, and it crosses the line of too poppy. Pierce holds his notes out to the point of discomfort. It is unusual to see a band move from creating music so heavy on instrumentals to something so focused on vocals. Especially in “Nervous,” which is practically acoustic, the focus lies directly and solely on Pierce’s lone voice. Why he chose to put that song on an album entitled “Brutalism” is unclear and bizarre.
Live, Pierce’s voice melds back into the instrumentals where he finds his stride, posing as an instrument himself. In this way, Pierce’s vocals were excellent as a part of his live performance. However in terms of stage presence, having the rest of the band pushed all the way to the back of the stage made Pierce appear pompous and self-absorbed. It doesn’t help that songs like “626 Bedford Avenue” have lyrics like, “I don’t think you’re ready/But I don’t think you can forget me.” Musically, their older albums, take for example “Portamento,” read instrumentals first and then vocals. The reason “Brutalism” doesn’t share that same experience is more than likely because of the changes in the band.
Although it was clear Pierce was trying something new by presenting his voice as the main focus of “Brutalism,” by straying so far from the lo-fi indie pop atmosphere presented by songs like “Days” and “Let’s Go Surfing,” Pierce unintentionally left behind what made The Drums something special.
Photo taken by Nicholas Moore.