In 2015, Lower Dens bandleader Jana Hunter told CNN that his goal in becoming a musician was “to be someone who stood in-between politicians and the public and helped to hold politicians to their word. And to expose subtleties of politics that maybe wouldn’t [otherwise] be clear.” Apparently, Hunter’s original life goal was to become a political journalist, which explains why his lyrics have often sounded like holdovers from the ‘60s folk protest tradition, even within the context of modern indie pop.
Then promoting Lower Dens’ third album, Escape From Evil, the Hunter’s stated ambition doesn’t appear to have changed on the new follow-up, The Competition. But to their ultimate credit, Hunter and the rest of the band have crafted an effortless listen, one that sees them return with new insights without ever getting heavy-handed: Music for making bitter pills easier to swallow.
With The Competition, the band revisits the fusion of synth-pop, mainstream pop and the goth-tinted dance music they introduced on Escape From Evil. This time, though, they combine those elements more seamlessly and allow the music to act as a disarming agent. Sonically, much of The Competition comes across as celebratory, perhaps even giddy—and certainly danceable. Clearly, Hunter understands that, for the audience to receive such an urgent message, it sometimes helps to lift them up first, especially since Hunter tends to be such a blunt lyricist.
If it weren’t for ultra-direct lyrics like “In every generation / There are those who just don’t fit in”—from the bubbly disco-synth pulse of “Young Republicans”—you might be able to sit (more likely dance) through The Competition without even realizing that you’re being invited to dance on the ruins of a system that threatens to decimate us first if we don’t do something about it.
As Hunter has said several times in the past, Lower Dens’ music often puts the ravenous machinery of capitalism in its crosshairs. That remains the case with The Competition, which draws its title from the way market forces pit people not only against one another but against their own best interests in order to meet a basic minimum of “survival.”
In Hunter’s own words, The Competition calls for us to re-humanize ourselves by “socially de-conditioning ourselves and learning how to be people.” With that intention in mind, he pivots to a far more personal point of view than ever before. The Competition still offers a macro perspective, but only in a handful of spots, and even then somewhat obliquely. Unsurprisingly, the album shines a light on the way the tentacles of industry invade our inner space. Listening along, with Hunter mixing-in personal anecdotes that put a human face to the socio-political concepts, you get the feeling that, while unchecked capitalism harms us on so many levels, disentangling from its internal effects might just be our biggest challenge.
Still, much of the The Competition’s power lies in the way Hunter zooms in and out between perspectives—often on the same song. Like a master cinematographer, he frames certain lines as carefully backlit scenes within a greater narrative message. On “I Drive,” for example, featured guest vocalist :3LON (Elon Battle) sings, “I wonder why / Do I have to make a sacrifice / I heard you cry / In the middle of the dead of night” as Hunter answers with the chorus hook, “Why can’t we be with the ones we were meant to love?” Meanwhile, the metaphors Hunter employs on songs such as “Empire Sundown” (people getting pushed off a raft) and “In Your House” (a snake swimming in snow of a TV screen) demonstrate a newfound freedom with language—almost as if Hunter used abstract paintings as backdrops for close-up dialogue between actors.
“Empire Sundown,” “In Your House” and other songs give us passing glances of societal upheaval, but Hunter’s protagonists grate against themselves just as much as they do pressures from outside. “Memory and violence are haunting me,” Hunter sings on “Lucky People,” as a twangy guitar recalls the dreamy ambience of Chris Isaak’s classic “Wicked Game.“ The line continues: “Days and nights of thoughtlessness are killing me.” That might be so, but The Competition provides just enough of a basis of “thoughtlessness” in its musical accessibility—a thoughtlessness that not only enlivens and uplifts but ultimately creates room for thought.
Additionally, by not always divulging who is who in these songs, The Competition shows how far Hunter has come as a lyricist. On “Young Republicans,” for example, Hunter sings: “In every neat and tidy town / We can’t help feel we’ve been let down /
We never asked to be this way / No spines, no tongues, no fingerprints / We’re young Republicans.” Is the song talking about actual Republicans, or does it suggest that people who go against the grain are the “real” Republicans? We don’t know, and that’s the beauty.
Hunter started out wanting to be a journalist—and to this day, still approaches writing from that perspective. Somewhere along the way, though, the singer-songwriter grew into a poet as well. The Competition heralds Hunter’s arrival as an artist who is able to communicate implicitly every bit as much as much as explicitly.