The Dears are releasing their new, eighth album Lovers Rock on schedule, and it couldn’t come at a better time. “People need music — they need it now.”
The Montreal band has always revelled in the dramatic, in highs and lows, with a sound electrified by six-string heaviosy, tense synths, sometimes orchestral richesse, with lyrics steeped in heartbroken despair over teetering romance or a world gone to hell. Though the band’s chief singer, songwriter and lyricist Murray Lightburn insists that they “steer clear of politics — that’s not what we do,” a number of songs on their early albums No Cities Left and Gang of Losers (not to mention their Protest EP) reflected tragic world events like 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terrorism.” COVID-19 is another moment like that, and even though Lovers Rock was written well before someone in Wuhan ate a sick bat (or something along those lines), the new songs are eerily prescient.
“Until I really examined the lyrics more, I didn’t realize how (the record) would translate to what’s going on now, but it really does,” says Lightburn, noting that he’s received lots of feedback about the timeliness of the lyrics from fans. “It’s pretty wild. The last song on the album is called ‘We’ll Go Into Hiding.’ That’s what everybody is doing right now.”
While the album title was originally chosen as an allusion to both the Clash song and the reggae subgenre of the same name (newsflash: there’s no reggae on the album, and it doesn’t sound like the Clash), the cover art and some of the lyrical content point to more sci-fi, astronomical layers of meaning. But if COVID wasn’t the lyrical inspiration, what was?
“You could sense that the world has been taken down a dark path,” says Lightburn. He lists the Brexit debacle, Canadian election campaign scandals (and their complete disappearance post-election) and the Trump administration as covered by a certain infamous news network as political realms that have been occupying his mind.
“Over the past year I almost exclusively watched Fox News,” he says. “All day playing in the background while I was working in the studio, it was just kind of on. I know it sounds insane. Like, ‘Why would you do that?’ I don’t watch it much anymore ‘cause I feel like my research is done. What’s even more fascinating (than the network’s content) is the people who choose to embrace this stuff. We’re now seeing stories about people protesting lockdowns — what the hell kind of First World insanity is this?”
Beyond purely political discourse, or perhaps partly as a result of it, the negative ways in which people interact with each other these days is something that inspired Lightburn to write “The Worst in Us,” and to lobby their label Dangerbird to release it as the lead single from Lovers Rock (which it was). “I just wanted to make the case to not embrace the dark path in the face of (COVID-19), even though the album was not written with this in mind at all. In times like these, especially when people were panic-buying and turning into assholes just to get toilet paper, you have a choice to make. If you take the dark path, you’re just going to spiral down that dark path, but if you take the bright path, you’re encouraged every step of the way.
Though Lovers Rock will be available digitally on May 15, physical copies won’t be out till Oct. 26. And of course the touring that was supposed to follow the digital release has been postponed. The kind of fans that this Montreal band has attracted over the past 20 years, however, are used to waiting, and they’re not going anywhere.
“We’re lucky to have that kind of world,” says Lightburn. “Dears world. We only get to see them every couple of years, and it’s like getting together and shooting the shit, but from a song-based perspective. ‘Here’s what’s new, and here’s what we always talk about.’
“At this point, touring and album releases are not that intertwined. Nobody wants to hear the new songs anyway! When we go out on tour, they just want the jingle-jangle of ‘Lost in the Plot’ and then they go home (laughs). The set list we had planned was really just dipping our toes in the new record and mostly playing the songs we know they want to hear.”
By the time the fans have let Lovers Rock sink in (and people are finally allowed to gather again), it’s possible they’ll be just as psyched to hear some of the new material live as they are to sing along to the greatest hits. It’s an exceptional record, and Lightburn agrees.
“It eclipses the last three records in a way that I can’t even really begin to uncork with you,” he says. “Not that the last three albums are bad to me, but it’s the first record that’s been made mostly in our own studio and I had about three years to get the workflow in the studio to a certain point where the technical side is buttoned down. It really opens things up to be creative when you’re not fumbling with a cable or a signal path.”
Lovers Rock shares a lot of common ground with the Dears’ 2003 album No Cities Left, from the sound to the themes to the amount of guitar composition and playing that Lightburn did (leaving him with swollen “Golem fingers”).
“The doominess of No Cities Left played out like a sequel on this record. You could jump through Gang of Losers, Missiles and the other three records and you would think that this was the next record. On a lot of levels, it’s like our Blade Runner 2049.
“I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but there were components in the Dears orbit that were preventing something like this from coming out. There have been a lot of changes over the past couple of years that have allowed us to find a new comfort zone and a new, very refined place from which our records are gonna come. Natalia (Yanchak, Lightburn’s life and band partner) and I have a really no-bullshit view of everything from the music to the business. There’s no fucking around about the vision of what it is we think the Dears should be and anything that gets in the way of that is gonzo — we don’t tolerate it.
“It’s the music business — you get pulled in a lot of different directions and you can lose your way. We’ve lost our way many times. How could you not lose your way over the course of 20 years? I would say now we’ve definitely found our way back on so many levels, and it’s come out on this record. I think people are gonna feel that, they’re gonna hear that. We’re very confident in how it’s going to be received.
“That being said, there are still people who just choose to not get us (laughs), so we have to deal with that.” ■
The Dears website
For more coverage of the Montreal music scene, please visit the Music section.
To read the latest issue of Cult MTL, click here.