[Lucky Number, 2013]
I feel the need to introduce pop music fans to Darwin Deez. The New York-based group blurs the line between band and singer-songwriter. It appears as though frontman Darwin Deez (Darwin Smith) writes the songs and then enlists a band of musicians to take on tour. Indeed, I will limit my analysis to Darwin himself, as he seems to be the driving force behind the music. And let me be clear: this man deserves more acclaim for a number of reasons. First, he gets credit for the catchy, thoughtful pop-rock of his debut album (Darwin Deez, 2010). It caught on in the UK, but was largely overlooked in the US. Second, we’d be remiss to deny him far greater plaudits for his hairstyle and especially his distinctive mustache. You go, Darwin.
As previously mentioned, DD’s musical styling can be described as offbeat pop. But unexpectedly, his most impressive attribute has been an innate ability to meld more serious, somber tones into his work. Standout track “Bad Day” from the self-titled album is a good example. Deez builds up a groovy pop melody over the course of the song only to break it down piece by piece, eventually shifting to a climactic and tonally distinct final movement. Earlier on that album, “Bed Space” leads with a cheerful pop melody and similarly upbeat lyrics, but the mood quickly transitions to reflective sadness at the chorus. This dichotomy manifests itself in many of DD’s songs lyrically as well as tonally, giving them added levels of intrigue and memorability.
Fans of Deez’s prior work will be glad to know that he’s been able to translate these redeeming qualities (and then some) to Songs For Imaginative People. The paradigm shift in musical tone on opener “(800) HUMAN” may be his best yet. It starts out a somewhat unremarkable song, but then the inflection point hits and DD launches into a layered vocal harmony expertly designed to firmly plant itself within the mind. A similar shift characterizes the record’s first single “Free (The Editorial Me).” The track begins as discordant weird-rock, distinctly flippant and almost cheesy in tone. But its campiness is replaced by introspective sadness first partially at the 1:25 mark and then with more finality around 3:10. The stark contrast in sounds is unexpected and refreshing, and the lyrics are idiosyncratic as well. Deez sings in the style of a rejection letter: “Dear sir(s) / We regret to inform you / The norm you conform to / Does not meet our needs at this time.” It is an interesting and melancholic take on something “everyone is familiar with,” according to Deez.
Darwin Deez has publicly expressed that he is inspired by existentialist sentiments. This predilection is revealed throughout Songs For Imaginative People. Take the end of the rejection letter section of “Free”: “When the man you’ve scripted’s hands are lifted to the sky / And the old you dies.” Additionally, on “Redshift” Deez takes his existential thought process and applies it to a significant other, singing “The universe is mostly empty space without you.” The focus on existential themes sets Songs For Imaginative People apart from more traditional pop records.
But in many ways, Songs For Imaginative People is still just that– a pop record. Alongside the philosophical passages are lyrical stretches involving tongue-in-cheek references to alcohol (“Alice”) and text document formatting (“No Love”). On one hand, plenty of the album’s soundscapes are profoundly sad, or in other words not conventionally “poppy.” But on the other hand, there’s also no shortage of airy funk melodies and reverb-laden percussion samples lifted straight from the annals of 80s pop. Mid-album pairing “Moonlit” and “No Love” carry that torch, with the latter also serving as a vehicle for Deez to show off his guitar prowess. The point is this: the album’s poppy moments have the intended effect of adding gravity to its more serious moments by comparison.
So what are the implications of Songs For Imaginative People? Bear with me: currently it would seem the hipster movement is beginning to experience more widespread acknowledgement and acceptance. I may be only loosely qualified to say so, but Darwin Deez appears to be quintessentially hipster. Like most of that ilk, he is defined by his quirks. He is also defined by his genuinely intriguing music. I would argue this gives him the potential to become something of an ambassador for the acceptance of hipster culture. The key is that, in the vein of a true pop artist, Darwin’s music and his style are essentially inseparable. You can’t enjoy his work without being constantly reminded of his oddball hipster nature. Thus, as he gains a wider audience thanks to his songs, more people are exposed to hipsterism and its inherent tenets. These include fashion, art, and (to an extent) tolerance. Since these principles are generally positive, it’s encouraging to see their proliferation. If Darwin Deez is able to promote them (indirectly or not) through the popularity of his music, we all win. Luckily for us, Songs For Imaginative People has what it takes to achieve at least modest mainstream status. Its unique blend of pop and seriousness is captivating. There’s plenty of room on college- and alternative-radio airwaves for these songs. Let this be an acceptance letter: Dear Darwin, I am happy to inform you that a growing number of us appreciate what you’re doing. Keep up the good work.
And by all means keep up the good mustache.