In the two years since Badlands, his rockabilly-obsessed debut LP as Dirty Beaches, Taiwan-born, Canadian native Alex Zhang Hungtai has traversed the globe, working through existential crises in Berlin, thinking about death on the Danube, catching the lights in Paris, and so on. Somehow, in the great cauldron of Hungtai’s brain, a sprawling, impulsive, wraithlike, and chillingly wild beast brewed over the course of those travels – a beast that has made its way out in the form of the 75-minute double-album that is Drifters/Love Is The Devil.
That’s right: a 75-minute double-album of atmospheric, electronic, ambient sonic play. With this kind of length, and with such a clear aesthetic conceit, its scope is cinematic – more than one can say for a typical electronica record. Drenched in nostalgia, it is at times a hazy journey, a 3AM cab ride through a misty Eastern European ghost town. Sometimes, though, it sits stolidly still: the low-fi drones, dusty cymbals and rattling voices slow all motion, suspended in the smoke.
What’s difficult to understand, then, is when exactly one is supposed to be paying attention. Some electronic records, like Justice’s Cross, or really any Daft Punk effort, are commanding, melodic, hook-laden collections that demand active listening; others, like Oneohtrix Point Never’s excellent 2011 release Replica, allow for reflective, mind-drifting, free-thinking listens. On Drifters/Love Is The Devil, Dirty Beaches sometimes switches between the two approaches mid-song; it’s confusing, to say the least, especially when asking listeners to intake 75 minutes’ worth of noise.
In this light, what it does successfully is make the comfort zone a very temporary place – in Hungtai’s world, music should let you float out a bit, then reel you in unexpectedly, stinging you with feeling and making you dizzy with gutteral motion. The robotic crooning over the electric-blues of I Dream in Neon repeatedly takes charge over an otherwise hypnotic groove; the pitchy, string-like droning on Belgrade rubs at the ears; and the out-of-tune, oriental strummed chords on Alone At The Danube River jerk you subtly but jarringly out of total zen.
Of course, this is not always a good thing. Woman is all nervous blips and piano plinks, and is rather uncomfortable. Aurevoir Mon Visage perhaps attempts to make an incessantly looped mechanical jungle beat interesting by added wooshes and wind sounds, but ultimately leaves a flat taste.
But on the whole, the double-album is an impressive and engaging aural expedition. The halves split between tracks Landscapes In The Mist and Greyhound At Night: the record’s first half, Drifters, is rather industrial, and offers thick, distorted grooves, and its second half, Love Is The Devil, is much freer, and focused on dramatic ambience and aura. Though the first half fares better – Drifters’ near-10-minute opus Mirage Hall is a heady, beat-laden, coughed-up, epic short film in its own right, while Love Is The Devil’s tracks melt into each other a bit too much – both sides of the record craft a thrillingly anxious mood.
And it is that anxiety, that ecstatic gloom, that hyperactive melancholy, that Dirty Beaches evokes masterfully. As it turns out, to be confused on how to take this record is to be listening to it properly: it’s an album about confusion itself. Because if this is what Hungtai has been cooking in his head, he’s given us an intimate and satisfying helping.