The Dears frontman Murray Lightburn eats alt-rock drama for breakfast. The guy can’t resist a carefully crafted minor-key epic, and in his band’s 11-year recording career, he’s come up with some damn fine ones. But The Dears’ brand of complex, heady emo is a distinctly acquired taste, and that fact helped maintain the band’s status as somewhat of a hidden gem. But even still, they have a hard time earning much respect—Lightburn’s been dogged by tired Morrissey comparisons since day one, and, as a Canadian indie-art-rock band breaking through in the heart of the 2000s, they’ve been somewhat overshadowed by the torrential praise thrown at peers like the Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene.
If Degeneration Street, The Dears’ fifth full-length, is any indication, they don’t seem to give too much of a shit. It’s the most Dears-like thing they’ve ever produced: an ambitious, insanely layered, eclectic (sometimes too eclectic) concept album about the thick, looming boundaries that separate Heaven from the Hell we call Earth.
At its best, Degeneration uses eclecticism as “wow” factor; opener “Omega Dog” is a nervous, tightly wound funk-rocker packed with an emo gut-punch, spiderbite guitars, and Lightburn’s gorgeous falsetto—the whole package reminiscent of TV on the Radio’s recent foray into funky texture. “Thrones,” on the other hand, sounds like the work of a completely different band, nurturing a dreamy ‘80s rock melody into a Bowie-esque pop anthem. The genre-hopping and complete devotion to sound-sculpting is more than admirable; in fact, the album’s all-encompassing musical scope helps keep Lightburn’s most angst-ridden lyrics grounded—the rising and falling chords and gorgeous, stereo-panned sonics on “Lamentation” make heavy-handed visions of Heaven (“We believe what the prophecy says / Those billions of souls on the edge”) easier to digest. All-around, the songs are their most dynamic and fleshed-out in years, and it’s no surprise—they decided to work with an outside producer: Tony Hoffer (Beck, Belle & Sebastian), and long-lost bandmates have rejoined the fold.
But occasionally, The Dears simply try too hard. When they aim for OK Computer levels of grandeur, the results are shaky—“Galactic Tides” is their “Exit Music (For a Film),” building a cinematic level of suspense, but it’s the Lifetime movie version of Radiohead’s grandiose Citizen Kane-style epic. Conversely, their lone attempt at “rocking out” is even shakier—”Blood” is a fairly generic riff-rocker only a scream or two’s throw from Linkin Park.
By the closing title track, The Dears are tired, defeated, kicking stones along “the path to Hell blazed in a wreck.” The music builds from keyboard mist to psychedelic death march—it’s almost too much drama, even for Lightburn, who proclaims, “I heard there’s no rest for the wicked / so I won’t be sleeping when I’m dead.” Then again, The Dears have never been much for subtlety. In all its sweeping, overwrought craft, it’s an ironically life-affirming curtain call to their Great Gig in the Sky.