A couple of years before fun. decided to light their drums on fire and make the programmed chart-topper that is Some Nights, another indie icon – Bobby Darling of Gatsbys American Dream fame – decided to fire up his laptop and record some songs as he trekked across the globe. In 2010, Darling released two EPs as Places and Numbers, Waking the Dead and Notes from the Dead Zone, and in 2011 he released a full length entitled Travels. All three releases are solid but it’s the first EP release, Waking the Dead, that seems to resonate the most with me, partly by virtue of being the first issuance of Darling’s new sound, but also because I think it has the tightest songwriting of any of the Places and Numbers releases. (As a Tolkienophile, I am contractually obligated to mention that ‘Notes From the Dead Zone’ is, very expertly, built around a Lord of the Rings reference. End nerd debriefing.)
Waking the Dead begins with ‘I Had A Dream About A Nuclear Attack,’ whose title, as you probably noticed, is not exactly cheery. The song functions as an excellent introduction to Darling’s new electronic sound with pulsing synths and thumping drum loops. With the exception of the choruses, the vocals are more submissive than we’re used to seeing from Darling’s work, though the literary slant of his lyrics1, as we’re used to seeing from Gatsbys American Dream, remains. One of the most intriguing aspects of this opening track is the manner with which Darling is able to address complicated sociopolitical issues with a thoughtful grace. If you’ve seen a political ad or stumbled upon a cable news channel in the last decade, you’ve surely noticed the aggressive rhetoric that marks any and all conversation about … well, about anything; it’s all very inflammatory. The modern mode of communicating sociopolitical thoughts and opinions has become rage. That Darling is able to avoid this, while still making salient points, is extremely noteworthy. It’s not that he doesn’t have an opinion (he does), it’s that even in a song that dramatically prophesies an inescapable nuclear armageddon, he sounds painfully reasonable; Darling isn’t neutral, just thoughtful. Rather than letting his disagreement with an opinion or situation boil over until he’s melted down into something resembling a screaming third-grader (“You’re dumb!” “Nuh-uh, you are!” -Cable News, 2012), Darling actually presents a reasonable approach to his revolutionary idea that we, the peoples of Earth, should not allow the civilized world to end in a nuclear holocaust. His reasoned plea for peace is just so out there that it’s kind of endearing, right?
The middle two tracks on Waking the Dead, ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘I Have Mapped the Curves of Your Body,’ take a more mellow approach to both their lyrical matter and their sonic construction. ‘Goldfinger’ is built around a drum loop and decorated with verses that actually manage to make do with almost nothing but some slightly distorted vocals. It’s a song whose simplicity almost indicates that it shouldn’t work, but whose solid vocal and instrumental melodies somehow carry the whole thing. Meanwhile, ‘I Have Mapped the Curves of Your Body’ is both very short and very simply constructed, but it is driven by a graceful chorus and the fact that only Bobby Darling could write a song about sex that prominently features the words ‘math,’ ‘logic,’ ‘orbit,’ and ‘atmosphere.’
Waking the Dead closes with its eponymous title track. As Darling has stated, this song and several others in the Places and Numbers canon are explicitly about his dealing with the sudden and sequential deaths of both of his parents. The lyrics are touching and powerful, and given their intimately personal nature, I won’t say anything more than this: all literary posing aside, their painful honesty alone makes them absolutely required reading. The instrumentation of ‘Waking the Dead’ revolves around a chorus that arrives with a punishing combination of synth and bass, and is marked by Darling’s octave-spanning vocal line. The verses approach with a lower level of intensity than the choruses, but still have very solid melodic construction. An old-timey bridge presents a block of powerful lyrics with a vaguely vaudevillian melody and key arrangement that would make Casey Crescenzo proud. With such power in the lyrics and instrumentation, I’d say that ‘Waking the Dead’ is not only the strongest song on this EP, but possibly the strongest song to emerge from Places and Numbers yet.
1. The lyrics of this song are too clever for me not to address them further. Darling has managed to craft the rare song that manages to be political without being an attack ad, in which we get a glimpse of the old Gatsbys American Dream thematic stand-by of hubris/the fall (“and we are liars if we say we did not bring this on ourselves”), a plea for the end of hypocritical xenophobia (“we’re not so different from the things we hate”), and finally a very succinct examination of the tangled relationship between faith and hate (“grab your bible, make your bombs” and “find your god, make your war”). Really phenomenal stuff.