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The Drums - Brutalism Music Album Reviews

The latest album from the Drums—now just frontman Jonny Pierce—is his most honest and most unvarnished.

To hear frontman Jonny Pierce tell it, his fifth album as the Drums, Brutalism, is his most honest effort yet. Something is indeed new and different on Brutalism, but it isn’t Pierce’s obsessive self-examination, nor the A-B-A-B-schemed verses, nor even the fact that it’s the first Drums album to use a live drummer, as its beats remain as simple as always and the difference is barely detectable. What’s different here is that Pierce’s best trick—bailing the Drums out of all the above criticisms with undeniable hooks—is practically absent. Pierce has described Brutalism as a brave, necessary shedding of a false persona he felt forced to maintain ever since the Drums suddenly exploded into one of America’s most-hyped bands. Many others will just hear a lowering of the bar for what qualifies as a finished song.

Brutalism marks the second Drums album with Pierce as the sole member. Looking back on the intensity of their first couple years as young Brooklyn upstarts—from a ridiculous and irrefutably infectious debut single, to becoming one of the most Shazam’d artists of that year, to the subsequent and mysteriously contentious departure of their lead guitarist—it’s a small miracle that we have a Drums album to talk about at all in 2019, and maybe to no one more than Pierce: “I like the idea of putting out a few strong albums then going away forever,” he said in 2011. But Brutalism is a Drums album by technicality, as Pierce is now settled into a familiar path for 21st-century indie-pop bands, one taken somewhat recently by The Shins’ James Mercer, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s Kip Berman: trudging forth with sole custody of a defunct band’s name. Everyone in this club has since produced mixed results, and Brutalism doesn’t inspire much confidence that the good will outweigh the unnecessary in this phase of the Drums.

Pierce is clearly over what the Drums were before, but the task of replacing that identity with something interesting seems to be eluding him. Those thudding faux-bass lines at least gave their early albums a unique fingerprint, for instance; now they are gone, replaced by a much cleaner-sounding low end that almost feels sterile in comparison. “626 Bedford Avenue” is speckled with unnecessary electronic frills. So is “Kiss It Away”, with the addition of a cranked-up BPM, which at least makes its frustratingly flimsy chorus go by faster. Either Pierce forgot that there was ever more to his best songs like “Days” or “Best Friend” than a couple synth voices and an easy rhyme, or he’s hoping his listeners won’t know the difference. The latter possibility is cynical; both are bad news for Drums fans.
And then there’s the subject matter. The lyrics are brutally raw, not just in the emotional sense, but in the uncooked sense: seemingly laid to paper or Notes app once and instantly greenlit. Over the sound of a real voicemail, Pierce tells us on opener “Pretty Cloud” he’s badly missing someone, and the diary-entry level of detail that ensues throughout ensures that we don’t forget it. At his best, he can still be effective while being extremely personal. Album closer “Blip of Joy” is both: lyrically hyper-detailed about the hesitations involved with moving on to someone new, and also as exhilarating as a deep breath of fresh air in its upward-surging melody. In other words, it’s strong and considered enough to mean big things to more people than just Pierce. Even the best Drums albums surround a few highlights with filler, though, and Brutalism falls even harder into this pattern. It’s entirely possible that Pierce chose to use this formal LP as his scratch paper for working through frustration, and that Brutalism is simply the type of album made for its own creator above all.

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