After listening to “dog”, the second full-length from listenlisten, several times now, I think I’m starting to understand. I was surprised at first, because after 2009’s Hymns From Rhodesia, I was expecting something, well, something a bit more grand, really. That album unfurled like a manuscript of some long-forgotten chunk of history that happened and then faded away, bit by bit, and it pointed bloody fingers at past crimes, death, and fear in all its forms.
In contrast, “dog” sounds low-key and warm, all homespun comfort and thought, gentle and heartfelt but focused in rather than out. Right from the start of “I Rise,” it feels like this is a much more personal album, an album of “home” songs, played in the soft twilight on somebody’s porch to a small gang of attentive friends who know exactly what frontman Ben Godfrey’s singing about. Fittingly, Godfrey’s vocals make me think of John Darnielle, the king of personal indie-rock more than anything else, at least during the stately, serene opening section.
The song really sets the tone for the rest of the album, starting off quiet and seemingly delicate but quickly revving up into a horn-heavy crescendo; it’s regretful but resigned, almost a plea to just go ahead and get it over with, particularly when Godfrey declares, “Everything should start off as bad as it gets.” Would that the world were that uncomplicated…
That, to me, feels like the overall theme here — there’s a weary resignation to all of “dog”, a sense that yeah, things are bad, and bound to get worse, but that’s okay, it’s the way it goes. Where Hymns was all about the inescapability of death, “dog” is about being okay with that knowledge. It’s all about accepting, and yet stubbornly holding on anyway. Take “I Will Be Mean,” for example, a somber, bitter track that chronicles a man’s bullheaded attempts to fix up a house that’s probably beyond repair, even as the relationship built around it crumbles and dies. Godfrey sounds like he knows full well that things can never, ever be the same, but he’s going to do what he feels like he needs to do, nonetheless.
There’s also “I Will Forget,” where the band drifts along like a misplaced spirit, announcing to anybody who’s listening, “Tell my family I died / And I’m not coming back”; again, there’s this weird, accepting serenity to all of it. And “Idle Love” sounds tentative and upbeat musically, but when you listen to the words, it’s obvious the love in question is dead and gone: “Cold hearting pumping a dirty waste … Ain’t nothing colder than my embrace.” It’s bleak, but it’s also final, with a near-audible shrug, like it’s the way things are, and that’s going to have to be okay.
Musically, too, things have changed somewhat. The intricate, thoughful song structures, sweeping near-choral choruses, and odd (well, not so much these days, but still) instrumentation’s definitely in evidence, but the listenlisten guys have toned down the murky, Southern-Gothic vibe, at least a little. It’s not gone, of course — songs like the quiet, sweet “Ghost,” with its delicate piano and ambling guitars, bears a heavy resemblance to the music on the band’s first EP, and “The Time We Almost Died” is dark and threatening as all get out, which is appropriate considering it’s about an overturned vehicle and a brush with death. There’s an added bit of strangeness in the lyrics, where Godfrey leads you to think that people who saw the wreck cried and ran down the street, but then subtly reveals that they were running to hide from the cops, not help the people trapped in the wreckage.
“Deaf Comes to Everyone,” for its part, is old-school, cry-in-your-beer country, with serious flashes of Okkervil River’s Will Sheff in the vocals (and a high-five on that), and while “Ears Are Hearing” is tense and foreboding, building to a raw, ferocious climax with sinuous, squalling guitars over half-howled harmony vocals and frantic drums. The latter’s probably the most “rock” thing on here, but the real odd-man-out — and, coincidentally, probably the most addictive track of the bunch — is “Try Like Hell,” a stomping, shambling, hillbilly-tinged bit of indie-rock weirdness with banjos.
On that track, listenlisten sound like they’re channelling Lonesome Crowded West-era Modest Mouse, with fast-moving, talk/sung lyrics like “I am the good goddamn keeper of oblivion.” I half expect Isaac Brock to stick his head ’round the corner, truthfully, and yet I find myself not minding at all. It’s a different direction for these guys, that’s for sure, but it still works amazingly well. And taken as a whole, “dog” itself feels like it’s about that, anyway — the final, accepted end of something, after all, is almost always the start of something else.