Album Review: The Damnwells, ‘The Damnwells’
There's a certain lack of effort implied when an act decides to go the self-titled route for an album, but there's also a handful of good reasons for keeping things simple: making an introduction, for instance, or heralding some sort of restatement of purpose. The Damnwells, the fifth album from the Damnwells, can be taken either way.
Of course, a band on its fifth record shouldn't have to introduce itself, but as Damnwells fans are well aware, this group has spent much of the last 15 years flying under the radar. It wasn't always thus: Their debut LP, 2003's Bastards of the Beat, came out on Epic, and they entered the studio on the label's dime to record the follow-up, 2006's Air Stereo. But as outlined in the illuminating, heartbreaking Golden Days documentary, major-label machinations ended up not only throwing that record into limbo, but helping shove the band completely off its axis.
By 2008, the lineup had scattered, leaving singer-songwriter Alex Dezen and bassist Ted Hudson as the standard bearers for a group that evolved into more of a creative mantle or brand identity than a band. A bittersweet state of affairs, to be certain, but one that produced heaping helpings of brilliant music — both 2009's One Last Century and 2011's No One Listens to the Band Anymore were and remain essential collections of intelligent, full-blooded rock music. Whatever personal wars of attrition Dezen and the Damnwells were fighting, they led to some (ahem) damn fine songs.
So with The Damnwells, the Damnwells remain an unknown quantity to an unconscionable number of listeners. But this 11-song set also stands as a restatement of purpose, because it marks the reunion of the original lineup, welcoming drummer Steven Terry and guitarist David Chernis back into the fold after a seven-year absence. You're forgiven for hoping for a more creative title, but really, that's what this record is: The Damnwells. And The Damnwells.
Given that Dezen — who's racked up a truly impressive list of credits as a professional songwriter over the years — has always tended to attract talented players to Damnwells sessions, the original lineup's reunion counts for a little less in sonic terms than it would have if he'd been, say, crooning over a bank of synths and a drum machine in their absence. Century and No One Listens felt like band records, and so does this one; if the restored lineup means something to you, it's probably because you're already personally invested in the Damnwells story.
But this is not to say that it doesn't have an impact on the album as a whole. Even as a younger band, the Damnwells' stock in trade was a deceptively melancholy brand of rock; Dezen has always had a gift for luring the listener in with sweetly hummable arrangements that add a spoonful of sugar to the fraught conditions his songs' protagonists tend to find themselves facing. Perhaps more than any other songwriter of his generation, he traffics in poetry while still understanding the power of a lyric that surveys emotional wreckage with a reporter's eye, bringing the listener the facts of the situation instead of hiding behind excuses or recrimination.
From the beginning, in other words, Damnwells records have artfully reminded listeners that while joy can be fleeting, our sorrow is temporary too — and that we owe it to ourselves to not only face the consequences of our choices, but to dust ourselves off in the aftermath and carry on, a little wiser every time. The Damnwells, maybe more than any of the band's other albums, holds together as a song cycle that hits every beat on that emotional spectrum while finding new ways to wring fresh insight from white-dude-with-a-guitar subjects as clichéd as breaking up and getting older.
Those themes loom large over The Damnwells, as damn well they should — these guys have broken up, for one thing, and on another level, a chunk of these songs function as a sort of divorce suite for Dezen. But there's no bitterness here, just a clear-eyed willingness to accept life as it is and a determination to carry on — all woven into some of the wisest and most addictively tuneful songs you're liable to have the privilege of listening to all year.
Things have a way of getting broken as we get older, and the Damnwells are living proof. But there's a level of hard-won wisdom and depth of compassion that only comes from breaking, and The Damnwells offers a triumphant affirmation. Of course, Damnwells being Damnwells, it might also be a cautious affirmation, delivered with a hopeful smirk instead of a jubilant fist-pump, but it might be more meaningful that way. Our sweetest moments, like our favorite records, are best savored with the knowledge that we never know when another one might come our way.