Dartland is an album, but Dartland is also a place. It’s the house in Seattle where Worst Party Ever set up shop last year after relocating from Sarasota, Florida — about as extreme a change in location as is possible within the continental United States — seeking a change of pace. Back when Worst Party Ever were playing stripped-down acoustic emo that had more than a little in common with classic Pacific Northwest indie-pop, Andy Schueneman once sang about “living in Alaska in my mind,” so I guess he’s getting closer to that headspace in physical space.
Planting your band more than 3,000 miles from its place of origin is a handy framing device for sonic transformation, but the metamorphosis into a full-blown rock act under a thick cloud of depression was actually well underway before the move. With the here, online EP, released on Valentine’s Day 2020, Worst Party Ever’s focal point remained Schueneman’s deep, mesmerizing tenor and all its memorable but unfussy turns of phrase — lines like “Stop texting me, I don’t want to talk!” and “I’d rather stay inside just smoking weed all day” and “I had slept in my clothes and I’m not really sure if they’re mine” that come across like realistic dialogue but lodge themselves in your brain like hooks. But the EP largely traded out Elverum-esque lo-fi strumming for a sparkling surge of drums and guitars. Working with producer Kyle Hoffer, Worst Party Ever converted songs that might have worked fine as ballads into resplendent rock songs, urgent and melodious without giving up the band’s signature melancholy.
Schueneman’s lyrics suggest a man who likes to spend a lot of time alone at home, and his band arrived in Seattle in a year when most people had no choice but to stay inside for long stretches. After almost two years of pandemic-era living, Worst Party Ever have emerged from their abode with a debut album that feels unstuck from time. Among the painfully online, there’s been some discourse this year about the various eras of emo and how the genre, now ostensibly in its fifth wave, is beginning to react against the straightforwardly hearty aesthetic of 2010s mainstays like Modern Baseball and Balance And Composure, often by incorporating glitchy electronic elements and whatnot. Worst Party Ever are having none of that. Dartland is not without its artful flourishes — see the ambient synth outro that lands “Provenance” far from its acoustic introduction — but mostly this record shoots straight down the middle with a sound that could have just as easily popped off in 2013 or 1999. It works!
Despite its origins in their Seattle home, Worst Party Ever made Dartland in Michigan with Tyler Floyd, a producer who has helped nearby bands like Dogleg and Greet Death capture remarkably dynamic recordings. For this band, that involved piling on the guitar tracks. Dartland is a dense listen — full of chords both fuzzed-out and jangling, strewn with riffs both plaintive and joyously energetic — and it sends that density barreling along at high speeds in quick bursts. None of the album’s 12 tracks makes it to the three-minute mark, and many don’t even crack two. Given the bleary mood and the hefty arrangements, Dartland is not what I would call a breezy listen, but it blows past before you know it.
Schueneman’s writing fuels that concise approach. He continues to pen effective no-frills lyrics — words that cut straight to the point, delivered straight from the heart. Often they center on the sisyphean quest for renewal — unsurprising coming from a band that transplanted itself from one corner of the country to another in search of a fresh start — and that constant battle to reveal yourself rather than hiding away in the safety of solitude. “You’re inside of my circle for a night,” he confides early on. Later he promises, “In the bathroom light/ I wouldn’t hide forever/ From all the ghosts in the lobby/ From all the cloudy weather.” There’s a constant push and pull between the desire to be known and the impulse to retreat into yourself. “I’ll always listen to you,” he promises on “Natural,” just a few songs after singing, “It’s OK to want to talk/ But I’m useless, I don’t care at all.”
Dartland never raises the stakes beyond this kind of interpersonal drama, a solipsism that will either alienate you or, if you catch glimpses of yourself in Schueneman’s vignettes, strike you as piercingly relatable. When attached to such vibrant and propulsive indie rock, these narratives, though sometimes dour, can take on a redemptive, even hopeful quality. This is true even (especially?) when they don’t present a tidy resolution for his internal tug of war. Rarely is Dartland better than on “Beautiful Out,” which begins with Schueneman declaring, “I’ll stay inside for the rest of my life,” and ends somewhere less resolute: “I don’t want to go outside, but it’s beautiful out.” There’s the faintest glimmer of hope in that acknowledgement that the world beyond your walls might offer something you can’t find in seclusion. And if not, well, at least Schueneman is writing some great songs in there.
Dartland is out digitally 12/17 and physically 1/7 via No Sleep, and you can already stream the whole thing below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Roddy Ricch’s Live Life Fast
• John Dwyer, Ryan Sawyer, Greg Coates, Wilder Zoby, and Andres Renteria’s Gong Splat
• Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ Les Panthère Des Neiges score
• New Grass’ Scordatura Perforations
• The Sing 2 soundtrack
• Johnny Marr’s Fever Dreams Pt 2 EP