The twin masks of tragedy and comedy peering from the cover of Dehd’s third album are a fitting emblem of the band’s new songs themselves. On Flower of Devotion, the Chicago trio’s second Fire Talk full-length, songwriters Emily Kempf (bass) and Jason Balla (guitar), joined by drummer Eric McGrady, devote themselves to the sort of polarity symbolized by the so-called “sock and buskin”—joy and suffering, coming together and falling apart, bitter ends and new beginnings. They ride these emotional and existential seesaws throughout the record, rendering their efforts to hang on tight with both blunt candor and tongue-in-cheek humor. The result is Dehd’s best album to date, a significant upgrade on their sound that finds their Windy City DIY scene-honed amalgam of surf rock, shoegaze and dream pop at its most melodic and expressive. The trio demonstrate newfound levels of intensity and focus on Flower of Devotion, leaving minimalism behind in favor of glossier compositions.
Flower of Devotion, recorded in Chicago in April and August of 2019 (their acclaimed sophomore album Water was released that May), and produced by Balla, wastes no time in blossoming. Its first two tracks, the sunny and lovesick “Desire,” followed by antisocial lead single “Loner,” showcase Dehd’s surging dynamism by way of layered arrangements that swirl around conflicted feelings, as conveyed via Kempf and Balla’s complex vocal interplay. “Desire” finds the duo debilitated by romantic longing (“When will this hoping feel like a wing? / For now I’m soaking, weak in my knees”), swapping bittersweet lyrics over warm, washed-out guitar chords, thrumming bass and McGrady’s insistent beat, which hammers like a heart racing as the song crescendos. “Desire, let me out,” Kempf and Balla beg in unison at its apex, their voices multiplying along with their helplessness to resist that eponymous emotion, even in light of its high price.
Kempf’s vocals are particularly bewitching, punctuated with live-wire yelps and heightened by breathy vibrato, like when she howls, “I’ve had enough of each other / Want nothing more than to be a loner” (though, paradoxically, “Loner” is Dehd’s biggest reach-for-the-rafters anthem yet). Her impassioned delivery bridges the gap between the self-described “scrappiness” of Dehd’s past output and their new album’s increased emphasis on careful calibration—Kempf’s animated elasticity is a key counterpoint to Balla’s more stoic monotone, as well as the consistent surf rock/shoegaze sheen of their instrumentation.
That sheen, despite being the album’s stock and trade, is also the closest thing it has to an Achilles heel, as it loses some of its luster over the course of Flower of Devotion’s 40 minutes. That said, the bottled lightning of Kempf and Balla’s give-and-take is more easily appreciated against a relatively flat background—just take “Drip Drop,” which intertwines the duo’s vocals to lovely effect, building on a bedrock made only of dreamy guitars and McGrady’s unwavering percussion.
And speaking of percussion, a shift in McGrady’s approach marks another new frontier for the band: Electronic drums underpin both “Loner” and “Haha,” and briefly make their presence felt elsewhere (“Flood,” “Nobody”), subtly recasting Dehd’s spirited melodies in a dream-pop light. Indeed, Flower of Devotion features some of the band’s most insistent hooks yet, from the gorgeous riffs and aforementioned chorus of “Loner,” to the woozy chords of “Flood” and Kempf’s layered insistence that “I am a flood for you,” to the calming repetition of “Month,” bookended by droning incantations of “It comes and it goes,” like the rise and fall of the tides.
That’s not to mention “Disappear,” a bouncy and deceptively romantic invitation to shared isolation, in which Kempf and Balla holler as one, “Do you want to disappear with me?” And the typically reticent McGrady even steps to the mic himself on “Apart,” bassily lamenting the deterioration of aging (“I feel myself falling apart”) alongside cheery, chiming guitars and his own upbeat, jangle-pop percussion. It’s a lovely touch, emphasizing Dehd’s continued growth and cohesion as a trio.
There’s something deeply relatable about Flower of Devotion’s “can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” sentiment—we can’t opt out of the bad without also letting the good go (though that doesn’t mean we can’t at least complain about our raw deal). Final track “Flying” puts an emphatic capper on this conundrum: “In the garden of emotion / I see the flower of devotion / Admiration, affection, obsession / Give me your attention,” sings Kempf, her towering delivery and Balla’s backing both underlining her ultimatum. “Flying, you got me flying / Trying, you got me trying / To know you is to care / But to know you is a bit unfair,” she concludes to close out the album, as if leaving us with the idea that devotion isn’t something you choose, but rather just something you feel, whether you invited it in or not. Even a love that challenges and hurts you still inspires dizzying highs, forcing you to make an effort and emotionally invest. You can laugh, cry or both (“Yeah boy, I love to cry,” Kempf quips on “Haha”) at your lot, but whichever mask you wear, the show must go on.
Scott Russell is Paste’s former news editor, his wife’s current husband and his couch’s eternal occupant. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.