What sort of thoughts operate inside the mind of a recently divorced/separated, homosexual man in his mid-thirties who has been abandoned by his best friend, his band, and rejected by his family?
They might be described as “abysmal”, I guess.
Herein may lie impetus for creating “Abysmal Thoughts”, the fourth and latest album from NY-based band The Drums.
Due to the continuous dwindling number of band members between each release, this time listeners are given a record that is the complete lyrical and musical creation of The Drum’s frontman, Jonny Pierce. While in a traditional band setting the loss of band members may truly be a loss, these days modern technology now minimizes its effects.
And in the case of The Drums, their loss is our gain.
See, Jonny Pierce is an incredibly talented artist in that he has the uncanny ability to distill everything good and “pop” about pop music — its hooks, choruses, catchy lyrics, neat sounds — into a highly refined audio treats. Naturally then, with the other band members out of the picture, “Abysmal Thoughts” brings to listeners the most pristine Jonny Pierce.
And it is good.
The album starts off with “Mirror”, a highly introspective song with a killer bass riff under a chorus of:
I look in the mirror when the sun goes down
I ask myself, “Who are you now?”
(Given what Jonny has confessed about his life after moving from NYC to LA, I was glad to hear that he is asking himself such a candid question.)
“I’ll Fight for Your Life” lures you in with a bass line right out of an SNES game.
“Blood Under My Belt” was the single off the album and for the right reasons. It contains all the signature elements of The Drums’ sound. The offending member of a broken relationship admitting his guilt. It’s sugary and sad at the same time.
“Heart Basel” and “Shoot the Sun Down” appear to follow the same lyrical vein as “I’ll Fight for Your Life” — presumably autobiographical glimpses into the artist’s life, both day and night, morning, and evening. Both tracks feature unusual instrumentation / timbre and seem to work as inversions of each other. The former featuring mostly traditional instruments picking out an unusual arrangement of notes, the later doing a similar thing with synths instead.
“Head of the Horse” is easily the most autobiographical track in The Drums repertoire. The song was sparked by memories, as seen in the chorus:
Here here I go again
All these memories coming back at me
Here, here I go again
All these memories get the best of me
It should be mentioned that Jonny comes from a relatively large family in Horsehead, New York where both his parents are Pentecostal pastors. From his own account, his was a very restrictive, lonely, and even “abusive” childhood. Somewhere along the line, Jonny overtly rejected his Christian upbringing and he also revealed to his parents that he was homosexual. This song gives us a few insights into the events leading up to that rift, the meta-story which often appears in Jonny’s lyrics and adds an additional layer to The Drums.
While the actual details are still not publicly known (I’ve heard nearly every interview Jonny has done), it’s obvious that Jonny’s homosexuality was the largest factor in the space that exists between he and his family. He then continues to divulge, almost as a sort of therapy, details of his life tied to the rejection by his parents. These memories are relayed in a pretty clinical way over skeleton-thin, repetitive musical accompaniment:
Shrink-wrapped magazines in a paper bag
Only boy in a ballet class
Dad’s on the pulpit preaching about love
Mother’s in the nursery cussing me out
If these are all related and in order, then the “shrink-wrapped magazines in a paper bag” may be a reference to pornographic magazines. If that’s what is being mentioned here, who had them? Was it Jonny? If it were Jonny that would certainly would cause any loving mother to be upset — especially a pastor. (Pornography is not only harmful to the people who view it [literally alters the chemistry of the viewer’s brain], but also exploits women and men while twisting the purpose of sex.) There are even more autobiographical details sprinkled throughout the song that give informed listeners some insights into why Jonny works so hard at distancing himself from the version of Christianity his parents practice and from them.
One curiosity is a repeated line (with slight variations) featured throughout the whole song: “He hugged me when I came home”. Yet apart from a mention of his father hugging him “for the last time”, the “he” is not clearly defined. I wonder: Was this Jonny’s attempt to recall a single good memory of his father? Or was the “he” some other male figure embracing Jonny?
“Under the Ice” is a refreshing, upbeat little ditty. Yet under its sunny veneer is the singer once again yielding his melancholy brush:
If you see me gently smiling, baby
I’m only trying not to cry
“Are U F**ked” is probably The Drums at their most mellow. It features an unusual timbre, instrumentation, and progression. The message of the song is a mystery to me.
“Your Tenderness” showcases a positive side of The Drums that has pretty much been in cryogenic freezing since “Let’s Go Surfing” off of their first released, the self-titled “The Drums”. A cozy saxophone strays here and there over an incredibly catchy bass riff and far-out synths, proving Jonny’s ability to do a lot with a little.
“Rich Kids” is a musical inditement of the his distain of spoiled, rich kids. The slightly out-of-tune lead guitar with a bit of fuzz added to it is incredibly catchy, as are the monosynths that weave in and out throughout the song.
Then comes the beautiful enigma “If All We Share (Means Nothing)”. For those familiar with The Drums normal song composition method — individual notes on top of individual notes — the appearance of actual chords will be shocking. But it’s a tender ballad of a man in his mid-thirties experiencing an existential crisis after the dissolution of a very close and important love relationship. The song is exposes listeners to a more poetic Jonny through lyrics like:
And when I see you outside
I have to run inside and hide
We used to turn cold into stone
And stone into gold
As far as I can gather in his interviews and the glimpses of his personal theology in his songwriting, Jonny is an atheist. The curious question that the song’s title and lyrics prompts this listener to think: OK. Queries into meaning are what make us humans. Yet if God doesn’t exist and nothing is eternal, then doesn’t that mean everything, in fact, does mean nothing ultimately?
Commendably, Jonny answers what his own supposition presupposes:
If all we share means nothing
Then all my life is empty
The title track “Abysmal Thoughts” is a mostly instrumental piece that, apart from the vocal performance, lacks any real memorable elements, which makes its placement at the end of the album appropriate.
Melancholy and Reverb
Overall, the album features all the wonderful parts of The Drums’ three previous releases — synths, upbeat beats, treble-heavy guitar riffs, and melancholy — and features variations on the theme with the addition of non-Drums’ standard instruments and compositions. It showcases well Jonny’s proficiency at the pop music craft as a whole. Sadly, it seems The Drums are still on the outskirts of mainstream pop music’s radar. These songs fit well into The Drums catalog and they hold up well to repeated listens. (I just got the album a couple of days ago and have already listened to it through nearly 10 times.)
Whence Cometh the Darkness?
The Drums are known for their strong melodies, very evident on this latest release. (Not surprising to those, like myself, who’ve followed Jonny’s work since the Goat Explosion days. Truth be told, if Jonny sang a phonebook, he would find a way to make it catchy.) Yet at the same time, their lyrics are somewhat depressing and, at times, dark (most obvious on their sophomore release “Portamento”). A massive melancholy cloud hovers over every song. Death chases Jonny across every album, this latest album included.
So, where does this tendency to write towards dark themes come from?
Only Jonny can answer that. But it is worth noting that loneliness is epidemic among gay men, even those that are fully immersed in a gay-affirming community. Could this be a contributing factor to the pessimism that pervades the music of the The Drums? One brave, candid soul seems to paint such a picture, revealing that his journey through the innards of the gay community left him internally dead and physically/literally scarred having never attaining wholeness or a lasting solution to his loneliness.
Isn’t this a Christian apologetics cartoon blog?
It has been my habit on this blog for the past 8 years to do apologetics in a little less orthodox way to try to bring some understanding not only what I believe, but why others believe what they do; i.e. interviews with unorthodox talents (people like Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band Drummer John French and comic legend and outspoken atheist Eric Larsen) and reviews. While I’m not sure if I accomplished that successfully, that won’t stop me from trying.
With that said, I’ve done my best to write as honest a review as possible. My hope in writing this review and posting it here is to show to people, especially fellow Christians, that there is value in listening to the voices of those with whom we disagree and you can appreciate their work without giving your seal of approval to everything they say and do.
Even more importantly, it is to show openly homosexual people like Jonny that, far from being hateful bigots, there are so many sincere Christians involved in the mission whose only aim is to help people find wholeness and contentment in a right / spiritual relationship with God. And the love that the Lord Jesus teaches is one that extends though all social structures, society’s labels, and even our own comfort level. His love enables me to reach out in love to Jonny and those in his situation to say: “My opposition to your lifestyle doesn’t hinder me from caring about you and appreciating your work.”
This open invitation and willingness to dialog is not the exception of the Christian community. It’s the standard. Yet I have yet to see an equally open, inviting response from the gay community. No sooner can you say, “I object to your lifestyle, but–” before a concerned Christian is shut up and shamed to silence at times.
I pray that at some point in time there will be some sort of reconciliation between Jonny and his family. I’m convinced through all that I’ve heard and read that neither party — not he nor his family — is happy with things as they are at present. Yet reconciliation is the not the work of one side or person. In such a scenario, there will be no restoration.
So, with that in mind, a valuable lesson I learned as I lay sick in a hospital bed emergency room I share with Jonny, his family, and with you, dear reader:
At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is other people.
contents © 2017 Joshua Warren