In December 2019, I stood in the back of a crowd at Alphaville in Brooklyn anticipating a set from Boston shoegaze group Horse Jumper Of Love. Before them, though, were Dirt Buyer, an emo-folk group I’d never heard of. I was an impatient teenager, anxious to see the band I was there for, not interested in hearing anything else. But Joe Sutkowski — a self-described alien, sometimes convincingly — took the stage, and his weepy pleas against sparse, spectral guitars nearly moved me to tears. The room around me evaporated, and I saw his pink, shoulder-length hair hiding his face. He sang with gutting rawness, his voice fragile and desperate, its quivering theatrics invoking Gerard Way. I was hypnotized by this demanding display of vulnerability; I’d been into emo music for years, yet this performance expressed a specific misery and darkness that made my heart sink.
When I went home, I looked them up and became infatuated with their self-titled debut album, though the guitars sometimes felt too haunting, too despondent. The brooding “Changes” is immediately chilling: “You move your hands in ways/ That would alarm even a passerby,” Sutkowski intones in an almost-whisper. On “Spin,” the dreary sound picks up as Sutkowski narrates a spiraling hopelessness: “Can’t outrun it/ Keep on trying/ Can’t hide from it now.” I also discovered that My Chemical Romance actually are a major influence for Sutkowski, who grew up in New Jersey.
Dirt Buyer began at Berklee College of Music as a duo consisting of Sutkowski and Ruben Radlauer from Model/Actriz, who is no longer a part of the band, though he aided with the writing and production of the new album. Sutkowski has other outlets as well; in 2021, he shared his solo debut Of Wisdom & Folly under his full name Joe Taylor Sutkowski on Danger Collective Records. He has a synth project called Jotay (“She Said” is the most popular song, and it’s invigorating). However, Dirt Buyer is the best known, becoming a staple of the Brooklyn scene after many bewitching gigs at venues like Baby’s All Right and Union Pool. For the current lineup, Sutkowski is joined by Tristan Allen on bass and Mike Costa on drums.
A magnetic sense of grief permeates Dirt Buyer’s music, and it’s heightened on their new album, Dirt Buyer II, out this week on Bayonet Records. Their debut was recorded on an iPhone, and its lo-fi aura lent it a certain magic, but the polished atmosphere of this sophomore LP takes the band to the next level. The clean electric guitars propelling lead single “On & On” sharpen the band’s catharsis, giving them a velocity that matches their impassioned feeling as they build up to Sutkowski’s invocation. When that moment arrives, it’s visceral: “I can feel it/ I can feel the things/ I’ll never need again.” It’s a grand elegy of preemptive mourning; the instrumentation grows loud enough to drown his voice out, as if he’s sinking underneath rough waves. Fittingly, it’s the last song on Dirt Buyer II.
The eerie opener “Dirt Buyer II Theme” has a biblical texture as Sutkowski deadpans a tale littered with imagery of tree houses, chewing gum, ice rinks, and belligerent DJs. It shows off Dirt Buyer’s powerfully quiet ambiance; ghostly guitars surround Sutkowski’s voice as he drawls the final lines that turn him into a prophet of existential dread: “In another life there isn’t music/ Just a bunch of beings in a row/ Confused and searching for nothing/ All that they can do is exist/ Live forever, left abandoned by the now.” Instead of remaining soft, the instrumentation accelerates into a sweeping whirlwind, an oppressive wall of sound that encapsulates this sense of apocalypse, bringing Dirt Buyer to places they’ve never gone before.
Subsequent track “Heavy” is, ironically, a reprieve, bursting with lively riffs and a moment of sonic levity and color, despite the intense lyrics, which are delivered energetically: “Though death is what you wanted/ Death ain’t what you got.” Death and loss are scattered throughout the album; the brief “Tears My Heart In Two” intimately recounts heartbreak as if it is lethal: “When I turn around/ And I see anyone but you/ It tears my heart in two,” Sutkowski utters on the verge of a sob, the strumming so gentle that most of the song is empty space — an almost disturbingly open demonstration of despair. Often, his voice is so expressive that it sounds as if he’s possessed.
In a statement, Sutkowski said of the album, “I’d spent a lot of time mulling over the things that had happened in my life prior to the move [to New York] and by this time I hadn’t really processed any of my family trauma that had been plaguing me for the better part of my life, so a lot of the songs that I wrote during this time were written through the lens of self-discovery, uncertainty, and resentment.” The album art of a black-and-white photo depicting the woods on a foggy day, some dead trees clawing at the sky, is a fitting image; the songs encapsulate a feeling of traversing through unknown, cold terrain, which is also what it can feel like to grapple with repressed trauma. Though the pain is within us, it feels like we are within it; our surroundings are suddenly foreign and sinister. The everyday, external tragedies that exist in all our lives become more apparent and suffocating as our mental state is deteriorating, as if the outside world is mirroring our own decay. “Fentanyl” was written about a time Sutkowski witnessed an overdose on his way to work. “Disposable and rotten,” Sutkowski croons, constructing this bleak wasteland and its doomed characters. Even the leaves changing is a sorrowful omen; everything is foreboding.
Dirt Buyer have perfected the art of morbidity. A playlist on their Spotify account boasts artists like Chet Baker, Elliott Smith, Jeff Buckley, and Sparklehorse, all of whom are connected through heartbreakingly resonant songs as well as devastating deaths (Baker died falling out of a window while high at 58; Smith died of an allegedly self-inflicted stabbing wound to the chest at 34; Buckley drowned at 30; Mark Linkous shot himself at 47). The lyrics of the ominous “Sounds Heard Through The Glass” read like an Emily Dickinson poem: “The air stands still/ Though my real death/ Is nigh.” Yet there’s something strangely comforting about Dirt Buyer’s music, like how strolling through a cemetery can have a healing effect or a rainy day can provide relief. The pain and darkness do not need to be buried or hidden in order to be cured; it can’t be cured, it can only be soothed, especially by exposure, by coming to terms with its existence. Instead of escaping the agony, it’s more productive to feel it in its fullest form. Dirt Buyer II travels to the very edges of anguish; often there is no other option.
Dirt Buyer II is out 10/20 on Bayonet.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Rolling Stones’ Hackney Diamonds
• Jane Remover’s Census Designated
• Blink-182’s One More Time…
• Sampha’s Lahai
• City Girls’ RAW
• Forest Swords’ Bolted
• Sun June’s Bad Dream Jaguar
• Lost Girls’ Selvutsletter
• Maria BC’s Spike Field
• Evian Christ’s Revanchist
• Gucci Mane’s Breath Of Fresh Air
• ME REX’s Giant Elk
• Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter’s SAVED!
• Bombay Bicycle Club’s My Big Day
• Valee & MVW’s VALEEDATION
• Dave Harrington Group’s The Pictures
• Naomi Sharon’s Obsidian
• Balming Tiger’s January Never Dies
• Sondre Lerche’s Understudy
• Oxymorrons’ Melanin Punk
• Chris Shiflett’s Lost At Sea
• Duff McKagan’s Lighthouse
• Teenage Halloween’s Till You Return
• Dusk’s Glass Pastures
• Emma Anderson’s Pearlies
• Lee Gamble’s Models
• Glen Hansard’s All That Was East Is West Of Me Now
• Gold Dime’s No More Blue Skies
• Crime & The City Solution’s the killer
• Sparkle Division’s Foxy
• Poolside’s Blame It All On Love
• Dead Times’ Dead Times
• Titanic’s Vidrio
• Myrkur’s Spine
• Mike Adams At His Honest Weight’s Guess For Thrills
• Boys Like Girls’ Sunday At Foxwoods
• Jesse Boykins III’s New Growth
• Knuckle Puck’s Losing What We Love
• Bat Boy’s Fun Machine
• Katie von Schleicher’s A Little Touch Of Schleicher In The Night
• Patten’s Deep Blue
• CIVIC’s New Vietnam & Singles
• Fawn’s Flamboyant NonViolent
• The Trolls Band Together soundtrack
• Alice Gerrard’s Sun To Sun
• Hot Machine’s Hot Lizard
• Katy Perry’s CATalog Collector’s Edition Box Set
• Cher’s Christmas
• Tom Petty’s Extra Mojo Version
• Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (Super Deluxe Box Set)
• Pentatonix’s The Greatest Christmas Hits
• Devo’s 50 Years Of De-Evolution 1973–2023 Box Set
• Goo Goo Dolls’ Live At The Academy
• Luke Grimes’ Pain Pills Or Pews EP
• HotWax’s Invite me, kindly EP
• Strange Joy’s Power Pop EP
• Sleaford Mods’ More UK Grim EP
• Hold My Own’s In My Way EP
• Florentino’s Kilometro Quinze EP
• Summer Walker’s Girls Need Love (Girls Mix) EP
• The Callous Daoboys’ God Smiles Upon The Callous Daoboys EP
• Slothrust’s I Promise EP
• Allegra Krieger’s Fragile Plane: B-Sides EP
• Jazzy’s Constellations EP
• Mason Ramsey’s Falls Into Place EP
• Il Sogno del Marinaio’s (Mike Watt, Andrea Belfi, Stefano Pilia) A Tribute To Miles Cooper Seaton EP