Review Summary: Drifters/Love is the Devil is a sprawling, ambitious album that plays with ideas of place and identity, of physical and emotional landscapes.
On his masterful album Low, David Bowie crafted a set of songs that deftly explored the inner workings of a disturbed and alienated individual, and his warped sense of the world around him. With the newest Dirty Beaches album, Drifters/Love is the Devil, Alex Zhang Hungtai has succeeded in a similar accomplishment, a sprawling, ambitious album that plays with ideas of place and identity, of physical and emotional landscapes.
The similarities between Low and D/LITD are surprisingly numerous, enough to make me wonder if the former was a direct influence on the latter. Both were partially recorded in Berlin, for instance (and “Berlin” is the name of the last track of Love is the Devil). In terms of structure, the two are almost identical: both feature strange, oblique rock/pop songs on the first half, and moody, near-ambient instrumental pieces on the second. Both are very tied to a sense of place, or, conversely, a sense of dislocation. And perhaps most importantly, both are encapsulations and transformations of what came before for their respective artists, as well as dramatic departures into new territory.
While there are, intentionally or not, plenty of parallels between the two albums, that’s not to suggest that D/LITD doesn’t stand on its own merits. To the contrary, D/LITD has an ambition rarely seen in popular music these days, and it succeeds on account of its total commitment to the ideas it presents.
Though technically two separate albums, the decision to package and sell Drifters and Love is the Devil together wasn’t without purpose. The albums are two sides of the same coin, informing each other and best experienced as a whole.
For the most part, the eight tracks that comprise Drifters are more musical sketches than traditional songs, vignettes that are more interested in capturing a moment than telling a story. Hungtai’s vocals, sounding like an unholy blend of Nick Cave and John Maus, sound as if he’s singing to you from the end of a smoky alley; deciding whether he’s enticing you in or warning you off is where things get tricky. The music is a mash of different styles, blending shades of rock, blues, funk, and electro topped off with a thick layer of grit. While the songs all sound very different, they’re united by their evocation of places and the sense of disorientation they exude.
Following the segue track “Landscapes in the Mist,” Love is the Devil is the escape from the city, the drifting away from noise and chaos and into solitude and contemplation. Aside from “Like the Ocean we Part,” the tracks are all instrumental soundscapes. If the songs of Drifters are musical sketches, LITD’s eight songs are paintings. From the sorrowful strings of “Love is the Devil” to the solitary guitar on “Alone at the Danube River,” all of the songs on LITD conjure up rich landscapes no less beautiful than they are lonesome.
Though impressive, the album is not without its faults. Whereas one of the assets of Low is its relative brevity, D/LITD does suffer from being slightly overlong. With the consistently high level of quality, though, I’d be hard-pressed to find tracks to cut completely, though many of them could be trimmed down a bit. Given the length of the songs and the pervasive mood of melancholy and unease, the album’s 75 minutes can be a bit grueling. When in the right mood, however, it’s an immersive experience akin to some of the best art films.
“Being lost” is the state of being unable to reach one’s home or destination; D/LITD explores the idea of lacking such a home or destination. And what would that be called? Drifting?