“Encyclopedia’ is full of magic and surprise” claims The Drums’ lead singer, Jonny Pierce, in the album notes for their latest release “Encyclopedia,” out September 23rd. The combination of these bold claims with the excitingly uproarious lead single “Magic Mountain,” and that title – Encyclopedia – promised an album of daring breadth and scope from the New York indie-pop band. And while “Encyclopedia” certainly delivers in many regards, it falls short of meeting the expectations it creates for itself, failing to find enough fresh ideas and new ground given the three years since sophomore album “Portamento.”
The album at least finds The Drums having more fun than when we last saw them, on 2011’s relentlessly dark Portamento. The album opens excitingly enough, with lead single “Magic Mountain” introducing us to Encyclopedia’s grander vision for the band’s sound. The song showcases the LP’s expanded production – gone are the threadbare guitar and synth combinations of the previous two albums in favour of a richly produced, dramatic soundscape, which throughout the album incorporates hand claps, 8 bit samples and even breakbeats. When first released as a single, “Magic Mountain” caused considerable debate amongst fans about the new direction The Drums were taking, but traditionalists needn’t worry – this new record, whilst more ambitious and accomplished, still sounds assuredly Drums-like. And yet that’s not necessarily a good thing.Whilst Encyclopedia delivers a more ambitious sonic production, it fails to depart from The Drums’ standard lyrical territory, returning to the well of heartbreak, nostalgia, and lust with diminishing returns.
However, that’s not to say that the songwriting hasn’t matured. The Drums have always been great at wrapping enigmatic, unsettling lyrics around inescapable pop hooks, and this holds true of “Encyclopedia,” even whilst the songs feel more rigorous in their expression and self exploration. “Face of God” provides the album’s most radio friendly song, mixing stadium sized cheers and a menacing riff with an anarchic chant. The song returns to the twisted sexuality that pervaded 2011’s Portamento – “I kiss the hand of satan when I kiss you,” Pierce intones in the opening line – but uses its symbolism to better explore the roots of the band’s darkness. In this way it feels at once more personal and more accessible. Other standouts include the irresistibly bratty “Let Me,” where the lyric “they might hate you but I love you / and they can go kill themselves” is matched by the accompanying whiney synths. It’s in these moments of creative bravado that “Encyclopedia” shines, so its a shame that several tracks in the second half of the album such as “Deep in My Heart,” or the insipid “U.S. National Park” have such limited ambition.
Encyclopedia also includes the first writing credit for The Drums by keyboardist Jacob Graham in the form of album closer “Wild Geese.” Taken from his solo LP “Cascading Slopes,” the song provides a surprisingly delicate and hopeful final note to the album, moving on from the band’s trademark angst. Replacing the tortured introversion of Pierce’s lyrics, the track feels romantic and liberated, its beautiful melodies and tapestry of sounds complimenting the track’s avian metaphor, whilst still hinting at the darkness found elsewhere. It offers a tantalising glimpse at where the band could go, but consequently also hints at how much more they could have offered this time around.
The album is an exciting progression for the band, exploring new sounds and concepts, even whilst its balance of darkness and playfulness feels like the thematic culmination of the previous two LPs. The songs return to the same lyrics and metaphors throughout, the album echoing itself in a cohesive package that nevertheless is somewhat underwhelming. Ultimately, it seems to be straining against what it wants to be and what it needs to be, a necessary stepping stone to fresher, more mature lyrical pastures. If The Drums intended to write a definitive encyclopedia of themselves as a band, this is a strong first volume, but not the full set.
‘Encyclopedia’ is released on 23rd September