In the years since the release of How Did I Find Myself Here, The Dream Syndicate have had some time to explore the increasingly surreal nature of modern existence. And on These Times, the Paisley Underground godfathers explore our current state of dread and melancholy, but without ever getting mired in bleakness. There’s a sense of, “well, we’re here now, might as well look around and see what we can salvage” that pervades the album. It’s neither happy nor sad, a middle-of-the-night moment of clarity to be forgotten in the morning’s dawn.
The lead single “Black Light” is a carnival hellscape of sound that echoes a black-sheep sibling of fellow Anti- label-mates Man Man’s “Top Drawer” from 2009. With shifting and expansive synths, the sensation is what I imagine happens if you drink a lava lamp; your brain turns fluorescent and gets stretched around inside your skull while you watch. Lines like “Suckerpunch the misery truck” and “Switching the polarity of sight” are so deliciously bizarre that the relatively straightforward jangle-pop “Bullet Holes” the follows is almost a come-down.
That being said, “Bullet Holes” does the warm neo-psychedelia of the Beatles—too often imitated, rarely successfully—right in a way that only Oasis has managed to come close to. It’s a song that is likely to be underrated, but with each listen, it inches closer and closer to the top. “Black Light” is tough to top, though.
The album balances the avant-garde with the listenable; “Still Here Now” might be a little easier on the ears than the hollow-shout psychedelic sway of the electro-blues “Space Age,” but they are at their best when they’re peeking around the corner of darkness and light.
They pay a lot of homage to their own collections here; “The Way In” cribs the Beatles in a common enough sound, but also quotes Steely Dan’s “hot licks & rhetoric” from “Throw Back the Little Ones,” while the beat-poet patter of “Put Some Miles On” is as much about popping Birth of The Cool into the tape deck as easily as it about driving all night across the vastness of the wide Midwest highways.
The album is deceptively accessible, but at times, it can feel like there’s a block keeping the listener from understanding it on a deeper, more intimate level. Tunes like “Still Here Now,” and “Treading Water Underneath The Stars” which carries some impressive keyboard weight, feel like a surface listen, background music. Even “Space Age,” for all of its hooks, doesn’t have enough grounding to get stuck in your head-this is where “Put Some Miles On” stands out above the rest.
That’s a shame, because all of the songs are well-constructed and delightful to listen to. They’re musically rich, but the consistent fuzzing of Steve Wynn’s vocals in the mix makes it difficult to grab onto a lyric. Look at them on the sheet, “Death defying/acceptance without trying/walking on gilded air/down the boulevard without a care.” They’re pure poetry. Hear them in the music and…well, can you really hear them half the time? It would be a shame to lose, say, “Bullet Holes” because we’re trying to do more than just listen. But that says more about us as listeners than the band.
It’s tough to be a weirdo these days. You’re either trying too hard or you’re just failing miserably to stand out in a sea of mall soundtrack slurry. But The Dream Syndicate, weirdos since inception in the best way possible, don’t even take the easy way out and simply comment on how, wow, like, times are tough. We all know times are hard—and sometimes we just need music that itself isn’t afraid to stretch the boundaries of conventional pop to help us get through it.