Emotional candour on a break up album is a dangerous thing. Pitched correctly and it can bring unequivocal resonance with an audience, along with the trappings – rapt attention, boundless devotion – often setting up a long term relationship in and of itself in listening terms. Yet harnessing raw emotions is risky as they’re, well, emotional; fractious, fleeting, forceful – sometimes suddenly flipping to become the master of the artist having just been the slaves toiling for the music, results potentially haphazard and mawkish.
For their third record, Minnesota’s Dark Dark Dark were really backed into a corner, having to either tackle the genre in the aftermath of the breakdown of the relationship between vocalist Nona Marie Invie and the band’s co-founder Marshall LaCount, or call it quits. With a slew of tour dates ahead of them, they gamely decided to battle on, yet the album was still only born after scores of arguments and a five month hiatus.
Of course, most records that try to anatomise human relationships need an angle, and a band starting again, redefining their own boundaries with one another, is a compelling if, again, a dangerously uncertain one. Yet such an unsound starting point actually helps the band find real moments of majesty, in the same way that The xx begin with a wispy, 4am melodrama or Jens Lekman uses arch wordplay to scale real heights, both acts having also tackled love on record recently. A brooding success though, Who Needs Who is arguably the best of that accomplished bunch.
This is because Dark Dark Dark take an already interesting premise – fracture and recovery – and not only handle it with a rare level of care and thought, but also apply it in an inspiringly stoical fashion to their music, exploring themselves and the hurt of romantic entanglement in the process. That’s not to say the record is laboured or dull, quite the reverse – it’s often transcendental as, like all good albums, the band at times discovers more about themselves in tandem with the listener, yet – like lost love – at other times all seems despondent. And it’s all shufflingly, sumptuously subtle, sluiced with heartache yet retaining its own quiet authority.
Matters seem uniform at first. The accordion shuffle of The Last Time I Saw Joe and Without You hark back to their earlier work and do feel slightly mechanical, two lovers meeting on the street and having a stilted conversation about old times. Those aside though, the other songs find Invie at a piano, with her simple, heartfelt songs given spare, often tremulous, touches by the band, reinforced by a rich and pristine production. Everything around the core lyric and melody feels loose, like it’s the first rehearsal of the material – the guitars broil and crunch on Tell Me, and the isolating echo chamber of How It Went Down makes the song question itself. The band slowly find one another again, strokes become bolder and broader, and as they do lyrics can become secondary. Hear Me especially is a song that says it really with sound, a bold new synthesis with portentous drums, treated guitar and soft trumpet – uncertain yet suddenly familiar, an almost physical thing, a relationship in microcosm.
Then there’s the pockets of turbulence. Who Is Who begins as a stately piano lament, infused with brass and brushed drums before it suddenly veers into an unexpectedly jaunty and playful accordion section, a gypsy band crashing a wake. It’s either the heady relief of possibility at a laboured relationship ending, or sudden rush of remembrance of good times spent in vain, conjuring a refractive melancholy that can be paradoxically uplifting. Are we better with or without them? Who needs who? It’s A Secret finally finds Invie’s surrender – her normally measured voice catching as it rises to admit that “you could press your ear to my chest / find out exactly what you’re up against because it’s beyond me” before a grouped refrain crashes in. It’s stunning.
Who Needs Who is a record that strikes delicate balance – never overly sombre, neither is it cloying, it’s still an uneasy knot of hurt and hope. It also has an elusive charisma, somehow standard and sparkily different, rammed with quiet highlights. Despite bleak beginnings it’s infused with that most steady of characteristics – faith – with the band writing to process hurt and commune with the listener, employing a quiet dignity that makes it for an affecting listen. The break up could be the making of them.