There’s a general consensus in music that you need multiple musicians to form a band, while an individual is considered solo artist or a singer-songwriter.
If only it were that simple. Multiple indie acts over the years have muddied these definitions, making it difficult to tell where the line is drawn. Bright Eyes revolved around singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, but frequently brought in collaborators Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. Confusing matters further, Oberst’s “solo” albums tend to incorporate a plethora backing musicians. Similarly, Bon Iver began as a solo project by Justin Vernon, but gradually added regular members. On the flipside, Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker progressively worked with fewer and fewer additional musicians until the act’s most recent album “Currents”, which became his solo project.
Jonny Pierce of the Drums charted a path with some parallels to Parker and Tame Imapala, but there are notable differences that give the band a unique story. In an interview with Noisey, Pierce reflected on the band’s lineup changes since forming in 2008. The Drums performed as a quartet for their first self-titled album and follow-up Portamento, but by the time their third album Encylopedia was released, it was down to Pierce and band co-founder Jacob Graham. Then last year Graham left, leaving only Pierce. Though he had previously done the lion’s share of recording work by himself, Abysmal Thoughts is the first time the Drums and Pierce are one and the same.
For an illustration of the Drums’ dwindling lineup, one need not look any further than the band’s music videos. Early singles like “Let’s Go Surfing,” “Best Friend,” and even Portamento’s “Money” show the band as just that – a four piece rock band. Yet by Encyclopedia’s excellent single “I Can’t Pretend,” the video only features Pierce and Graham. Now, the video for Abysmal Thoughts’s lead single “Blood Under My Belt” shows Pierce front and center – everyone else in the video is an actor.
Because Pierce handled so much of the Drums’s previous recording, Abysmal Thoughts isn’t too big a departure from his previous, more collaborative albums. This is probably a good time to mention that it’s nearly impossible to discuss the Drums without mentioning influential 80s band the Smiths, as the Drums are probably the closest thing to a latter-day Smiths we’ll get. Both bands’ distinctive instrumentation is centered on reverberating bass notes contrasted by delicately-plucked, jangly guitar notes, but their singers’ overtly dismal lyrics tend to steal the show. Pierce has taken many a lesson from Smiths frontman Morrissey’s blunt pessimism, giving us lyrical snippets like “I thought my life would get easier, instead it’s getting darker, instead it’s getting colder without you” and “I see us high, high on a mountain/I see us die, dying on a mountain.” If you couldn’t tell by the album’s title, Abysmal Thoughts continues this trend, both lyrically and instrumentally.
Exemplifying this is the track “Heart Basel,” which consists of a simple descending guitar arpeggio, the Drums’ trademark pounding bassline, and Pierce singing a chorus of “please call me and tell me that you want me/cause right now my life is getting pretty ugly” as he reaches into a falsetto. It’s potentially the most Smiths-like Drums track (largely thanks to Pierce’s vocals and guitar work), and is one of their best songs to date.
There are plenty of similarly brilliant moments spread throughout Abysmal Thoughts, potentially the result of Pierce taking complete control and making an album entirely in his image. The aforementioned “Blood Under My Belt” is a catchy track that asks for a former partner back, contrasting its upbeat melody with lines like “I see death coming at me too quickly/I don’t want this to end.” Opener “Mirror” has a more foreboding quality, similar to Portamento’s “Book of Revelation,” with a chorus of “I look in the mirror when the sun goes down/I ask myself who are you now?” Toward the end of the album, “Your Tenderness” features the band’s tried and true eerie synthesizers alongside the newer addition of saxophones. All of these tracks play to the band/Pierce’s strength of making pop songs with darker undertones.
Abysmal Thoughts tends to utilize repetition to a noticeable degree, potentially a result of the Drums being reduced to one member. This works well for dramatic effect on “Shoot the Sun Down,” where the track title and the line “I put a blanket over my face” are said over and over to really emphasize either a hangover, depression, or both. Yet it runs the risk of getting old fast, as the track “Are U Fucked” asks its titular question a few too many times. Even the energetic title track has its choir-like creativity sapped by Pierce warbling the words “abysmal” and “thoughts” repeatedly.
Since Pierce is admittedly “not a band person,” it remains to be seen if the Drums will remain a solo act in the future. Yet Abysmal Thoughts shows that with or without bandmates, Pierce can make a strong album that continues the Drums’ tradition of making some of the gloomiest pop songs around.