2008’s Visiter helped San Francisco’s The Dodos break out and stand above other indie rock acts using urgent, tribal drumming, perhaps even placing them among Animal Collective in terms of sheer innovation. Yet, 2009’s Time To Die and 2011’s No Color were disappointing follow-ups with inconsistent songs that were fun but unmemorable at best and boring at worst.
Now, however, the band has unleashed Carrier, a collection of songs both thematically and musically multi-layered, the themes inspired by the death of former tour guitarist (and former Women guitarist) Christopher Reimer and the music adopting non-traditional time signatures, mirroring the complex feelings associated with loss. Overall, Carrier is a captivating listen, and it’s The Dodos’ best effort since Visiter.
Immediately, Carrier reintroduces us to lead singer Meric Long’s muted vocals on lead track Transformer, one that announces the band’s attitude towards death as coincidentally similar to that of Superchunk on the North Carolina band’s latest brilliant album, I Hate Music. Long, much like Superchunk lead singer Mac McCaughan, starts off waxing philosophically about the power (or lack thereof) of song and music: “What is a song? / What is love? / What does a song hold? / Was it love?,” asks Long, ostensibly struggling to cope with Reimer’s death when all he has is music. The answers to Long’s rhetorical questions is second track Substance, and much like Superchunk’s answer to their own questioning of what music is worth (the song Void), Substance deals with existentialism. While Long continues to express his sorrow over Reimer’s loss and dreads the haunting that Reimer’s death will cause him for the rest of his life, singing “And you will forget and I will remember,” drummer Logan Kroeber acts as Long’s safety net, Kroeber’s powerful, yet steady drums providing stability to Long’s anxiety.
Meanwhile, third track Confidence is not so much where you can most hear Reimer’s thematic influence but his musical influence, as Afro Pop guitar plucks are coupled with straightforward, yet forceful drumming. On Confidence, the guitars explode and the song noticeably picks up faster not once, but twice, ultimately breaking down into two harmonised leads and breakneck drumming, making you question Long’s earlier refrain in the track: “My mind is empty.” Another track dealing with a sense of unknowing, Stranger, is straightforward, but builds up similarly to Confidence, its initially tense guitars and drums not breaking down into chaos but becoming slightly louder and looser. In general, throughout Carrier, Long is bummed out, but music fills his personal void.
And what’s perhaps most impressive on Carrier is that the traditional (by The Dodos’ standards) rock songs, like the restrained Family, work just as well as the comparatively experimental tracks like Confidence. While a track like Confidence may be a display of showmanship by Long and Kroeber, a track like Family showcases a different ability: to be able to write a pop song that’s meaningful to the creator and relatable to the listener. On The Family, when Long’s confused about the line between success and failure, we can both sympathise, empathise, and enjoy the subtle musical aspects that give the song corresponding depth, namely the high-pitched fast picking contrasting with the acoustic strumming.
Overall, Carrier sees Reimer’s death making Long question life itself. The album’s last two tracks, Death and The Ocean, see Long continuing to ask questions. His coping with death doesn’t necessarily follow anything like the five stages of grief and is instead continuously ambiguous and uncertain. So to deal with death, Long tries to shut down. But he can’t. He can only play music. As he sings on The Current, “I wait for the silence, but it never came.” And good thing for us it didn’t.