Review Summary: Unpacking the boxes, populating the rooms of the house.
To accompany their new album, Panorama
, La Dispute released a quasi-game that takes the recent “visual album” craze a step further. In Pilgrimage
, three figures, vaguely human but constantly shifting in shape, walk across endless expanses of soft blues, pinks, and oranges while the album plays. Often, there is something in the distance they are moving toward. Players can only control the general direction the figures move in. Controlling their speed or making them stop is impossible. It’s hardly a game at all, in fact. There are no penalties, no wrong way, no game over. For much of the runtime, it’s easy to wonder about the point of the game, pretty as it may be. It only becomes clear during the last song, “YOU ASCENDANT,” when the figures finally reach and blend in with a huge crowd of identical people as the picture fades to black.
This search for connection has been the driving force for La Dispute ever since Wildlife
. The weird blend of fantasy, myth, and lovelorn poetry on Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair
was lightning they could only bottle once. As if they were intensely aware of that, the first song on Wildlife
was called “a Departure,” and one of the last songs ended with Jordan Dreyer screaming, “Tell me what your worst fears are/I bet they look a lot like mine,” after seldom looking outward on Somewhere…
The underrated Rooms of the House
reined in the ambitious storytelling of songs like “King Park” and “Edward Benz, 27 Times” in favor of vignettes, flashes of memory, and imagery both internal and external: there are bridges; there are also
moments of collapse.
What this adds up to, after four albums and a handful of EPs, is a band that is firing on all cylinders. Even when Somewhere…
got lost in the weeds of Dreyer’s ceaseless vocals, La Dispute’s musicians displayed the ingenuity necessary to back up such a bombastic singer. On Panorama
, they show themselves to be one of the tightest units in music, writing groove after memorable groove. Guitars, bass, and drums meld seamlessly, with no component vying for attention above the others. What stands out is how rarely the guitarists resort to palm mutes, heavy distortion, or even fast strumming. There is an almost improvisational aspect to the music in a lot of these songs, especially “RHODONITE AND GRIEF,” with its smooth, clean tones and supplemental horns (a rarity for a band that does not usually utilize additional instruments). Even the more structured tracks like “ANXIETY PANORAMA” and “FULTON STREET II” have an innate spontaneity in their sound, a hesitant quality, as if each bandmember is waiting to see what the other will do. When they choose to let loose in “FOOTSTEPS IN THE POND,” it is all the more thrilling because of the other songs’ relative restraint.
As ever, Jordan Dreyer is La Dispute’s quartz under the mattress. Without him, the album would fall apart, not because the music isn’t great, but because it would be clear that something essential is missing. His performance and lyrics on Somewhere…
- not bad, just overly expressive - mean that he will forever be overlooked as one of music’s best vocalists and lyricists. The emotional acuity that he has developed over La Dispute’s past few releases is essentially unmatched. “FULTON STREET I” continues the thread of songs that detail the emotions of both the observer and the observed. Remember the locked door that never opened in “King Park,” and remember the locked door that eventually, tragically, did open in “Edward Benz.” Dreyer now shows a willingness to look even further, exploring grief and its adherents after death. Grief, in his telling, can be its own kind of strength, and gestures like putting flowers or a cross at the site of a fatal roadside crash, which might seem rote to passersby, actually draw from a monumental font of resilience that he wonders if he could ever find within himself.
“YOU ASCENDANT” ends the album with the culmination of the skills that La Dispute have developed over the past decade. The phrasings of Dreyer’s spoken word performance are sometimes strange, as if he struggles to find the words to describe the elusiveness of a perfect exit, impossible to achieve because someone will always be left behind. The bass drones atop tapping drums and a twanging acoustic guitar, slowly building and building in intensity. But the song never explodes into climax, denying listeners the idealized ending that Dreyer insists is impossible to find. Without the ability to see the credits roll on our lives, all that remains is the pilgrimage and the people who walk beside us on our way.