Brian Dunne Mixes Heart and Smarts on Loser on the Ropes

Indie singer explores wrong turns and dead ends on fourth LP

Music Reviews Brian Dunne
Brian Dunne Mixes Heart and Smarts on Loser on the Ropes

Brian Dunne has a direct way about him. He doesn’t mince words, or sidestep thorny emotions. Rather, the New York singer and songwriter tends to plant himself squarely in the path of whatever is rushing headlong toward him, without so much as a flinch. Yet Dunne isn’t grim or dour about it on his fourth album, Loser on the Ropes—he’s not standing there with fists raised, ready to scrap. It almost feels like he’s waiting with open arms to embrace the hurt and get to the root of it.

That approach pays off in a big way on Loser on the Ropes, his first album since Selling Things in 2020 (though a standalone 2021 single, “New Tattoo,” became an unexpected hit in the Netherlands). There are some tough moments in these 11 songs, but Dunne brings a restless energy to his examinations of the human condition that keeps them from becoming maudlin or bogging down in angst. He’s interested in wrong turns and dead ends, and what people do in those situations. “You either learn to love the cosmic lie / Or you learn to love the blues,” he sings on the title track, which opens the album, and that pretty much sums up his philosophy here.

Dunne’s lyrics are a major draw. He manages to be thoughtful, bracing and witty all at the same time, and he has a knack for keeping the context a little blurry while employing imagery that’s startlingly specific. “And after the afterparty, in the pre-dawn hush / We’ll find a coffee cart preparing for the morning rush,” he sings on “Sometime After This,” and though he doesn’t specify where, or exactly what’s happening, the scene is so vivid you can see it, even feel it: coming down off a meaningful night when it’s past time to go home, yet too soon to part ways. It’s not just the words Dunne has chosen, but the way he strings them together with alliteration and percussive syllables that catch the ear.

While most songs in pop or rock or whatever flow in a straight line—verse, chorus, bridge, etc.—Dunne often writes in a circular way, looping back to resonant images or phrases, or even melodic passages, in a way that doesn’t adhere to a strict structure. The way he stretches verses, or truncates the rhythmic meter of his lyrics, has the effect of pulling his listeners along with him. His songs don’t simply slide by, because there’s always some element that he presents a little differently from the last time in a way that reengages your attention.

It’s not only that Dunne is a talented lyricist. He’s great with melody, too. Sometimes he goes for a bright, punchy feel, as on “It’s a Miracle,” where the bassline propels the song through thickets of guitar while he delivers taut rhyming couplets. Elsewhere, he’s more subdued. “Call It a Weakness” is a wrenching song about one of those ill-fated wrong turns, and Dunne sings as if the words pain him, accompanied by a wash of piano and guitar. “Rockaway has a more anthemic vibe, in a yearning, downhearted way. Guitars, one of those instantly evocative indie-rock synth lines and a tight rhythm section frame lyrics about a search for meaning when it’s not always easy to find. “Some people wanna see the world in flames / Some people wanna have a god to blame / I don’t wanna leave here alone,” he sings.

It’s one among several standout tracks on Loser on the Ropes. The mix of heart, smarts and melodicism that he displays throughout the album suggests that it’s past time for a wider audience to discover what the Dutch have already figured out: Brian Dunne is a singer and songwriter who’s making music to last.

Watch Brian Dunne perform at the Paste Studio back in 2018.

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