The music of Lower Dens has always been dense and to some extent difficult, even when cathartic or hypnotizing. Across their first two albums, 2010’s Twin-Hand Movement and 2012’s Nootropics, the band perfected a kind of shadowy then nervy rock sound — exemplified by the albums’ respective highlights, “I Get Nervous” and “Brains.” Then, on 2015’s Escape From Evil, they further explored synthier textures. A different version of the band started to come into focus, whether in the downtrodden and moody dream-pop of “Sucker’s Shangri-La” or the pulse of “To Die In L.A.,” a song that suddenly suggested what a pop song by Lower Dens might sound like. Now their latest work, The Competition, is out in the world. It completes the arc of Lower Dens’ decade, standing as their poppiest and perhaps most complicated album simultaneously.
At the center has always been singer Jana Hunter, whose dusky vocals have given Lower Dens’ sounds its wounded humanity. Their delivery could add more shades of grey to the Lower Dens songs that sounded like narcotic escapes from the outside world, or they could cut through the murk, as if calling the listener back to shore. On The Competition, Hunter has taken the project into more direct territory (by Lower Dens standards, at least), exploring more and more pop and new wave sounds while not entirely abandoning the elusiveness that’s always made their music alluring. But perhaps most importantly, you really hear Hunter on this one, not just with their voice rising up clear and piercing above oscillating synthesizers, but also in the sense that the thematic weight of The Competition comes from how Hunter deftly navigates the personal and political throughout the album’s 11 songs.
The Competition is the sort of title that’s capacious enough to suggest a lot of ideas waiting within an album. For Hunter, it’s a broad, overarching concept, a way of describing the basic conditions of life under late capitalism. Not just the stuff we see every day — the endless grind of work in service of forces that will never benefit us, the predatory and psychopathic people who are willing to quite literally watch the world burn in favor of their bottom line, or the anxiety- and depression-fueling ugly side to withered American Dream mythologies in the 21st century. Hunter is also talking about how the structures built up around us have dictated our existence down to our personal identity, the way a human being is supposed to act and be.
Accordingly, a lot of the songs on The Competition trace narratives of people stuck in their own bodies, displaced or alienated and struggling to become whole. “I want to be young/ I want to dance with abandon,” Hunter sings wistfully on “Real Thing,” inhabiting a specific character of a married woman but also as if mourning a collective sense of lost innocence. In one of the album’s key tracks and singles, “I Drive,” Hunter wonders, “Why can’t we be with the ones we were made to love?” before answering themselves: “I live as instructed.” In some of these songs, like “Simple Life,” Hunter gets as personal as they ever have, cataloguing a self-destructive streak arising out of a battle against society’s expectations and strictures.
In other moments, Lower Dens offer some of their most ambitious and macro songs, taking on the political climate of America and how it all relates to the more personal material here. In “Empire Sundown,” Hunter envisions the collapse of the titular power structure. The album’s lead single, “Young Republicans,” is somehow deeply bleak and ruefully hilarious at the same time, with Hunter offering a sketch of the sort of right-wing character we have all become very accustomed to (and exhausted by) in recent years: the young Republican calling everyone a snowflake while immediately feeling victimized at the slightest disagreement. The song ends with a depiction of our country’s current death-drive, a triumphal chorus from the song’s characters proclaiming, “We lift our heads, we lift our heads/ At last, the world is burning.”
All of this could make The Competition sound like the darkest Lower Dens album yet, and indeed, there are some songs that play as nocturnal ventures into the deepest, most damaged corners of our souls. And yet, it’s also the glossiest, catchiest collection Lower Dens have ever made. “Young Republicans” and “I Drive” are both synth-pop jams that reach for climactic choruses, seeking release from the stories they tell. “Galapagos” is a glittering opening credits swoon akin to “Sucker’s Shangri-La” before it, a gorgeous tribute to a certain kind of self-creation, a kind of rebirth. “Simple Life” throbs along a new wave/disco rhythm that reminds you of the fact that Lower Dens played a show of all ABBA covers in 2017.
The main thing The Competition has in common with Lower Dens’ past work is that the more you sit with it, the more it begins to unfold. It has its immediate moments, but there’s a richness there that reveals itself over multiple listens. Upon its release, Hunter offered some notes on inspirations and images behind each song on the album. Read their footnotes for The Competition below.
JANA HUNTER: When people want to look at the development of an embryo inside an egg, they hold it to a light in a dark room. Within a few days, if it’s viable, you see it’s heart beating and a network of blood vessels reaching from the heart toward its shell. Images of these networks in the round shape of the egg made me think of archipelagos. Molten earth rising slowly from the bottom of the ocean, life reaching out from a brand new heart to make a living being. Like these, we create ourselves and like them our value comes from the beauty of that process of creation, and from our authorship of our lives. We are all valuable and beautiful, and we belong here.
2. “Hand Of God”
HUNTER: I found myself singing “just before you shake the hand of god” to playback of the song. It was funny and made me think of City Slickers, a movie about the personal cowboy journey of a radio executive, for some reason. Often I’d be doing this on the DC beltway, and I’d think about the audacity of the ruling class to defy whatever higher authority they supposedly believe in, and suck the life out of everyone else and the planet we’re on.
3. “Two Faced Love”
HUNTER: A compassionate song about missing out on love because you are afraid of being hurt again.
4. “Young Republicans”
HUNTER: Is there anyone quite as sensitive as a wealthy conservative who would burn the world to the ground for profit but has never had any real problems?
5. “Real Thing”
HUNTER: I was reading an advice column in a friend’s copy of Oui magazine (an old porno mag), and in it a woman asked for help with the dilemma of being married to a terrific guy but loving to go out, torn between a secure love and a fear of losing her youth and vitality. I wanted to validate the desire to live fully and unafraid.
6. “Buster Keaton”
HUNTER: A song about going thru the ringer with a heavy crush and coming out looking like Buster Keaton.
7. “I Drive”
HUNTER: Real family, even blood, is made. This song is about being with and about people who love and care about you, and the feeling of eternal, interior restlessness you feel until you do.
8. “Simple Life”
HUNTER: I’ve spent a lot of time extremely overwhelmed by the enormity of my feelings and wanting to engage in chaos as some desperate form of asserting control, and I don’t judge myself for it, because life isn’t as simple as good vs. bad.
9. “Empire Sundown”
HUNTER: “They take everything but they can’t tell us how to defend ourselves … what will we do to remind them that they can’t live without us.” A song about the end of empire.
10. “Lucky People”
HUNTER: A lot of early trauma led me to live very recklessly for a long time. A lot of love helped me rediscover solace and recognition in other people, and understand that intimacy is mine to give others, and that sharing my body with others is a gift that’s mine to give. Sometimes if we are truly lucky, we share an even greater intimacy, one that helps us defend ourselves from the many predators in this world.
11. “In Your House”
HUNTER: I wrote this song first, just before the election. The coke-loving snake on every TV screen steals our time and energy. Each of us is precious in a way that can’t be measured, but conservative conglomerates and their politician lackeys disagree and use us for lifeblood. They play a long con. Protect yourself.
The Competition is out now on Ribbon Music.