Meric Long, the guitarist and vocalist for San Francisco duo the Dodos, kicked off the band’s 2008 album Visiter on a note of bright, full-throated optimism: over an acoustic guitar and chipper banjo, he encouraged us to “fight the fire that’s in your head.” Seven years and four albums later, the band returns with Individ, out tomorrow on Polyvinyl Records, which begins with a starkly different statement. A dissonant organ groans to life, a brittle guitar figure enters and Long croaks, “Until now there was a reason…it’s not relevant.” Though the recent deaths of band mate Chris Reimer and Long’s father likely inspired the bleak lyrics burrowed throughout the album’s nine songs, what’s most gripping about Individ isn’t so much Long’s harsh nihilism but the way his lyrics co-exist with the band’s ecstatic arrangements, full of cathartic joy and fiery energy. Individ is a brilliant balancing act, constantly walking a razor-thin tightrope between being trapped by utter hopelessness and breaking free from it.
The Dodos have consistently been associated with a lack of inhibition; banging on guitars and drums like there’s no tomorrow. But never before has the full-throttle back-and-forth between Long and drummer Logan Kroeber sounded quite so unhinged and on the edge of flying off a cliff. On opening track “Precipitation,” Long and Kroeber lead us through passages of escalating frenzy before diving headfirst into an explosion of electric guitar shrapnel and pounded toms. Later, during an instrumental break in “The Tide,” a menacing synthesizer line lurches into focus off-beat, giving you the sensation of falling into black water.
As the record’s name suggests, this is a deeply personal affair, a testament to one man’s battle against the demons both within and outside himself. Long has likened the songs on Individ to being trapped inside a tornado, and his lyrics constantly reinforce that sense of being pinned down, powerless and hopeless. On “The Tide,” he alludes to “a lake full of nothing,” while elsewhere “darkness was all overhead.” In “Goodbyes and Endings,” he boils his emotions down to their brutal core: “Pain, painfully dull, painless,” he delivers in a heart-wrenching deadpan.
Although Long’s lyrics are hard to misinterpret, the arrangements and melodies that he and Kroeber craft on Individ are elusive, a far cry from the catchiness of older singles like “Fools” and “Good.” Here, the duo paints in broad strokes of hypnotizing drum patterns and surging riffs that swirl around you like a storm. The time signatures are often tricky to pin down, turning on a dime into unexpected polyrhythmic acrobatics. Long gives us precious little to hold onto by means of vocal hooks; he colors his melodies in shades of grey. Even lead single “Competition,” which features a guitar riff that feels playful, by comparison, remains a challenging listen.
Yet for all its slipperiness, Individ remains full of grace and minute detail. Long turns his full attention to the nuances of guitar pedals and effects, which provide the vibrant colors that his words will not. And although Kroeber’s blistering drumming constantly threatens to throw listeners off like a mechanical bull, the folks at Tiny Telephone Studios have recorded him with precision and polish; “Bastard” finds his drums outfitted with a fuzzy effect, while on “Bubble” each booming tom shines.
Individ stands as testament that polished music isn’t necessarily accessible music. These songs aren’t sweet or easy; their lyrics are harsh and their most beautiful moments hide beneath the surface. They are the snapshot of a struggle, a push and pull between giving up and the compulsive need to fight that urge. If Long is looking for answers, he may not need to look any further than his own past advice; but if he’s going to fight the fire in his head, he’s going to have to find the answers within himself.