Lower Dens' Jana Hunter, with a new release out today, offers her own definition of what it means to make a concept album
“Concept album” is a phrase that carries with it a very particular brand of baggage.
An ethos of excess looms large, as do Hollywood- and Broadway-ready sensibilities (Meatloaf, Use Your Illusion). Even a band as scrappy and D.I.Y. as Hüsker Dü couldn't resist making something as overblown (and glorious) as Zen Arcade.
Neither of the albums that the Baltimore band Lower Dens have made—2010’s acclaimed (8.1 on Pitchfork) Twin-Hand Movement and Nootropics, out today on Ribbon Music—could be called, strictly speaking, “concept albums." But Jana Hunter, the band’s guitarist-singer and a former folky solo performer, claims that the new album has a preordained place in the band’s output, that the concept for this band exists in the larger narrative of its releases.
“After we recorded Twin-Hand Movement, we discovered in the writing there was sort of a theme,” Hunter said recently over the phone from the road: Lower Dens’ tour brings them to Mercury Lounge tonight and Glasslands tomorrow.
“It was not a concept record, but it had elements of a theme,” Hunter continued. “That gave us something substantial to write about. So we weren't just writing to have something to play—we were writing about something that was important to us. We decided that would be the best way to approach future records. Through conversations in the van and a lot of touring, we developed the idea of a four-album thematic arc. We developed the idea very loosely just to have something guiding us, something to always turn to for inspiration so that we wouldn't be staring into a black void when it came time to write.”
In truth, it can be tough to discern precisely what Hunter is saying on Nootropics—her vocals are frequently woozy and indecipherable. In that aspect they match the guitars and—stepped up here from the debut—electronic textures. Some of it is deceptively light and new wavy, such as "Lion in Winter Pt. 2" and the single "Brains." So maybe the this album is something, in the concept pantheon, like OK Computer: transhumanism figures heavily into Nootropics' theme, but the words that do emerge tend to be cryptic enough to keep its lyrical arc secondary to its sonics.
There’s an intriguingly games-like aspect to the band's methodical, concept-like approach, one that’s become more common in the world of music. In an era where there’s such a surfeit of music to listen to and draw inspiration from, a goal-oriented project is a useful frame for jump-starting activity and, more importantly, knowing where to begin. Brooklyn’s Fiery Furnaces have recorded much of their work by following specific guidelines set out in advance; even Kanye West announced that his first four albums would form a tetralogy (or “quadrilogy,” as I neologically said to Hunter), though only the first three—The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation—got made; the world still awaits the one called Good-Ass Job.
Hunter’s not much of a Kanye fan, but her four-parter is loosely delineated in ways similar to his.
“Part of the idea of having a thematic arc instead of a delineated concept was that it would leave us enough room to interpret that and to have a lot of room for interpretation in the future,” she said. “We'd just have a guiding set of principles, rather than [something] more strict that we'd have to adhere to. I do feel like we're on track with what we set out to do.”
In this particular case, it meant a switch in methodology. Lower Dens got on the map with a debut that sounded so live and in-the-room. Both albums have a static-suggestive spooky quality, but even the quiet moments of Lower Hand Movement, such as “Truss Me,” has that one-mike living-room feel reminiscent of that quiet-indie lodestone, 1969’s The Velvet Underground. But when it gets loud, it’s like being in the room with the amps.
That’s much less true of Nootropics, which is less immediate and more studio-made—something evident in "Brains."
“The first record we recorded primarily live and then did minimal overdubs,” said Hunter. “The second record, we tracked some things live but it was much more put together and we left ourselves a lot more room for creating the arrangements in the studio than we did prior to the last one.”
Hunter and I spoke at the tail end of last week’s extended slog of dreary weather. Nootropics’ slower material has a certain resonance under those conditions, so I was curious what the weather was like generally when Lower Dens made the album.
“During the writing of the record, we were primarily on tour,” said Hunter. “So the weather varied a lot, but it was written in Europe during the late winter or early spring. Then the recording of it happened in Michigan around late fall. So it was not the most dreary times of year but in those cases was overcast, a little bit rainy, and the writing happened a lot in transit so it was kind of a very, thoughtful hypnotic state the way a rainy day can be.”
Two tracks in particular fit this description: “Blind in Winter Part One,” an instrumental overture for the rock song “Part Two,” and a 13-minute album closer, “In the End Is the Beginning.” Both are heavy on Hunter’s guitar overtones. No surprise—she was a player well before she began to sing.
“I've always felt more comfortable behind an instrument,” Hunter said. “Less so now, because I feel I've come into myself more as a singer and feel much more confident doing that. But I grew up playing violin and the guitar was kind of a natural extension of that. I had a much more control over myself as a player than a singer.”
Hunter’s got a husky, resonant voice that sinks into its surroundings beguilingly. When did she finally know she could sing?
“A while after I started singing,” she said. “It took me a while to be confident with my voice. I started singing when I was pretty young, but the first couple of bands that I had told me I could sing and gave me a whole lot of confidence in my voice. I just did it because there was no one else who was going to sing.”
One of the things Hunter sings on Nootropics is a song, “Candy,” that depicts someone “stuck on the porch with a broken knee.” Is that person Hunter?
“No. ‘Candy’ is kind of like a rip on a poly[amorous] type [of relationship]. It’s about an object of affection who's being mistreated [that] they have this affection for and protectiveness of, but also this kind of loathing [toward].”
Does this fit anywhere in the overarching concept of the four records, or is it incidental to that?
“It does: This record deals a lot with humanity's relationship to technology as an analogy to humanity's relationship to itself. The narrator, inasmuch as they describes a particular relationship, they're describing a relationship to themselves.”
Take that, Broadway.