People often forget that Alex Zhang Hungtai - aka Dirty Beaches - started writing music as he moved undetected through crowds in foreign lands. His songs were musical postcards of sort, collages of city noise he recorded and vivid images he saw.
When he released Badlands, he went from a faceless tourist to a Elvis like front man. He sang with confidence; yelping and screaming in a style that mirrored a greaser persona. Alex was reborn into a world of classic cars, burning love and rockabilly swagger.
Drifters, the first half of Alex’s latest collection of songs, still finds him shaking his hips and demanding to be heard, but these yelps and emotion are controlled. “I Dream in Neon” is a Waits worthy arrangement, but Alex doesn’t just grab a megaphone and growl at the moon. His vocals are coarse and raw, but never overshadow the supporting guitar work and sonic wash. The success of these songs is not in the influence, but if the soft, subtle handling off textures and emotion all too often delivered with levels in the red.
These songs document the nightlife Alex finds himself immersed within, a series of nights that blend together in sonic explosions, hedonistic acts, leaving only vague memories and clouded morning. These nights couldn’t be further from the world I live in, and that’s why they work so well. These songs are postcards from Berlin and a world one can only fantasize about visiting. In that way, they are no different than sonic collages from a lonely traveler lost in Saigon, they are just born from different influences and experiences.
For me though, the big surprise isn’t Alex’s continued development of as a charismatic, hip shaking front man, but the staggering power of alienation and heartache that defines Love is the Devil. For years, Alex has been influenced by soundtracks and scores, but the way pours such devastating emotion into these spare arrangements is beautiful. These songs took shape as he played through curls of smoke and watched the sun come up alone in a studio, and the end results mirror that lonely experience.
Despite the influence of Bukowski and beat poetry on this collection of songs, Alex’s notes don’t move at high bpm or play off of rapid, quick syllables. These introspective moments of guitar, synths and electronics float and bend, personifying broken hearts that are forced to ask questions like, “will they ever love me” and “do I deserve to be loved.” These eight songs contrast the eight that proceed it, but the reality of these broken admissions is that they exist because we are forced to fight a constant battle between who we are and who we often pretend to be.
These sixteen songs are the type of currency we acquire on travels and through experience. They are the odd looking coins and tattered papers decorated with strange faces and bright colors that we find when we empty our bags. To some, they have little value and are simply tossed into a jar or thrown away, but make no mistake, they are priceless. They are the memories. They are the metamorphosis that we go through. They are the postcards we write and refuse to send, fearing our words will be read and misconstrued.
Drifters / Love is the Devil is a soundtrack, but one that documents the maniac highs of the performances we put on at night and the pain of waking up alone or unloved. These songs accept the daunting task of accompanying reality, not augmenting or avoiding it.