In our interview with Culture Club frontman Boy George in 2013, he emphatically indicated that “Nostalgia has a limited shelf life”. Bands that rose to prominence in yesteryear are aware of this reality but often either succumb to it or willingly make peace with it regardless. Returning with newly recorded material after a long hiatus, very often, turns into a vehicle to promote a concert tour which ends up being a celebration of the band’s musical past. The excitement erupts and then fizzles out thus leading to the band’s fortunes remaining inextricably linked to their glory days in the limelight. Dreampop duo (formerly a trio with Steve Hillier) Dubstar seemed hellbent on bucking this trend and have consciously eschewed the stereotypical pathway to what feels like a momentary comeback for many music acts. Their latest album “Two” cements their resolve to break the rules, and fortunately that approach is likely to work spectacularly well – both for them as well as for ardent (and new) fans.
The first manifestation of their deviation from the norm was their decision NOT to tour to promote their album “One” – their first musical offering after an 18-year hiatus. “One” was a pleasant and low-key affair that yielded the achingly beautiful “Waltz No. 9” and the irresistible and the ready-for-radio “Why don’t you kiss me”. Vocalist Sarah Blackwood continued to sound as angelic as she did in the 90s. Chris Wilkie rose to the occasion and successfully filled the void created by the departure of his former bandmate Steve Hillier (who was considered the primary songwriter for the band at the start of their career) and truly emerged as the “George Harrison of Dubstar” (according to producer Stephen Hague, Sarah Blackwood made this reference to her bandmate and she most certainly was NOT overselling him based on the duo’s output since their return). It was almost like time had stood still for 18 years and the band were able to pick up where they left off. The duo won the hearts of old fans all over again. In addition to not wanting to ride the well-trodden nostalgia wave, I am guessing they also knew what the rest of us were only slowly starting to discover in late 2020 – that the album “One” was just the appetizer and that the sonic feast (main course and dessert combined) was the follow-up album aptly titled “Two”.
The second manifestation of their rewriting the rules of the comeback formula was “Hygiene Strip” – the fiercely sexy uptempo lead single for the album “Two”. One listen of this track revealed that this was a band that was not just looking to expand their legacy. Instead, they were on a bold and ambitious quest to outdo themselves and surpass the standards they had set when they first entered the music limelight. The timing of “Hygiene Strip” was perfect as it dealt with the multi-layered reality of change that the pandemic had hurled at a society paralyzed by fear – the feelings associated with vulnerability, the loss of human spontaneity, and the emotional upheaval that the pandemic had unleashed globally. Nothing underscores the assessment of pandemic life in the way the final line of the song’s chorus “it must be illegal to kiss” does. One of the advantages of having this blog tied to a 24/7 online global radio broadcast is the ability to gather feedback from our listeners around the world with regards to the songs that we feature on our playlists. We picked up rather quickly that “Hygiene Strip” had become a “gateway track” for many of our radio listeners that were unfamiliar with Dubstar. It is very rare for a band to offer a “gateway track” that triggers a journey of discovery of their catalog over 20 years into their musical career. In our 15 years of running this radio station, we had seen nothing like this before.
The third manifestation of Dubstar swinging a wrecking ball at the rules of a “so-called legacy act” was to take a rolling thunder approach to introducing the new album to fans by releasing five singles (four of which were up-tempo) over an 18-month period prior to the release of the new album. Once again, this is a very unconventional approach more akin to that of a new artist (in fact, this was the approach taken by British-Albanian popstar Dua Lipa as she slowly rose to prominence). The upside of this approach is that Dubstar had fans at the edge of their seats in a state of unbridled anticipation for over a year. This is a monumental feat in an era where attention spans for new music are ephemeral at best. This approach also has the predictable downside in that only half the album benefits from the novelty factor on the day of the album’s release. We applaud Dubstar for taking a chance and rolling the dice on this approach. Despite the inherent risk of this approach, “Two” more than delivers on the sky-high expectations that the band set with the string of hook-laden singles that preceded the album’s release.
Dubstar’s launch into the limelight stemmed from their ability to create radio fodder in the form of hit singles such as “Stars”, “Not So Manic Now”, and “No More Talk” – all of which are decidedly in the spectrum between downtempo and mid-tempo. In contrast, “Two” suggests a potential and partial rebrand of the Dubstar sonic template with four up-tempo singles (two of which would undoubtedly work in a nightclub context). It is a significant step forward for a band that many would expect to stay locked into a comfort zone at this stage of the band’s career. “I can see you outside” is the song pop duo Pet Shop Boys probably wishes they had written and recorded. Written just as lockdown was being lifted in the UK for the first time, the song appears to straddle the line separating anxiety from optimism through its somewhat schizophrenic lyrics. This schizophrenia is also reflected in the cryptic nature of the song’s verses which offer a striking contrast to the chorus wherein songwriter Chris Wilkie appears to be more literal – although this is likely more by coincidence than by design. On “Tectonic Plates”, vocalist Sarah Blackwood paints a vivid imagery of molten lava rising to the surface of the mantle of the earth’s upper crust (hence the title “Tectonic Plates”) waiting for its forceful eruption into the earth’s atmosphere. This imagery is a metaphor for a long- suppressed love eagerly anticipating its sweet and gushing release from its state of dormancy as highlighted by the lyric in the song’s chorus. On “Token”, Sarah Blackwood seems to be embracing a catharsis from a dead-end relationship which the following lines of the chorus capture incredibly well:
I’ve waited for years
I’ve harvested tears for every glass on the shelf
I wanted to tell
But I buried my fears
Forsaking my mental and my physical health
But now that the fever has begun to fade
I’m drawing a line under time that we made
And I’m ready to steal
Something that feels like real love.
In an interview with Rick Beato, international superstar Sting describes a song’s Middle 8 as an avenue to therapy or a resolution. Dubstar channels that spirit incredibly well on the Middle 8 of “Token” – especially with the line “So make the most of the time we shared because tomorrow’s mine”. No description of the song would be complete without a mention of the beautiful synth melody that first surfaces in the song’s introduction and then multiple times at appropriate junctures of the song. All of this is overwhelmingly positive but fans expecting more up-tempo material on the album outside of the singles that have already seen the light of the day might be a little disappointed. Of course, it does NOT detract from the album one bit but pampering fans with something unexpected early on is only likely to make them crave more of it.
At this point, it is tempting to consider that the duo might have delivered their best in advance of the album, but once again, their ability to surprise is rock solid. One could argue that they led boldly with their most potent radio fodder (via the singles) but they saved their most poetic and stellar lyrics for the rest of the album. Songs such as “Blood”, and “Kissing to be unkind” could be movie scenes of divergent story arcs that begin with a disintegrated relationship. The song structure of the latter, just like “Tectonic plates” does, deviates from the norm. The verses are sung in quick succession and only then does the song’s sublime chorus and grand finale hit hard in its quintessentially Dubstar way with the lines:
You smother me with your sadness
A serf in your open mind
Threaten me with your weakness
And kiss me to be unkind
Slaying me in slow motion
And leaving the love behind
You’re crying an entire ocean
And kissing to be unkind
Dubstar’s penchant for recording covers (noteworthy examples include Billy Bragg’s “St Swithin’s Day” and The Passions’ “I’m in love with a German filmstar“) of VERY non-obvious songs has been well-documented. Hence, it should come as no surprise that the album’s closer is a cover of “Perfect Circle” by REM from their debut album “Murmur” (released in 1983). This is undoubtedly a surprising choice given that REM and Dubstar have emerged from different musical heritages. The connective link between the two is producer Stephen Hague (the producer of the album “Two”). Stephen Hague was initially slated to produce the “Murmur” album but was replaced by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon because of artistic differences with REM. The weight of this minimalist (and slightly slowed down) version rests entirely on Sarah Blackwood’s vocal as opposed to the intricate keyboard-centric sonic underpinning that characterizes the original. One cannot help but wish there was a version of this song with the instrumental arrangement of the original fused with Sarah Blackwood’s vocals.
I cannot help but say that the perfect Dubstar album would be a blend of their last album “One” and “Two” – but that is clearly a lot to ask for. That being said, “Two” is undoubtedly a resounding success. It is unclear as to whether this stems from the duo reconnecting with hit producer and musical genius Stephen Hague (famous for his work with acts such as Pet Shop Boys and New Order). Hague held the production reins of Dubstar’s first two albums – the songs that put the band on the map. Perhaps, it is a creative rejuvenation of the band. One thing is overtly clear. The “imperial phase” of Dubstar is NOT in the past. The band has resurrected this phase albeit two decades later. I just hope this is a precursor to more greatness from the band. In my humble opinion, they stayed away as a creative unit for far too long. The spirit of gratitude would demand that fans be glad that the duo dropped two albums in less than 5 years. But hopefully, there is more to come. If not another album in the foreseeable future, at least a concert tour (ideally one that includes the US). Now, when can we get the album “Three” or do we need to patiently indulge our non-existent propensity towards delayed gratification?
STAR RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
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