Album Review: The Drums – Portamento

By on Tuesday, 13th September 2011 at 12:00 pm

There must be something in the water in New York. Most, if not all, of the dramas set in that widescreen, moviescape city are either stories of love, or dramas of destruction. Or both, which is what Jonathan Pierce and the Drums have unveiled with Portamento. Plainly recorded, with an almost toy-like approach to instrumentation – drums are tinnily programmed, guitars are clean and muted – the themes are anything but childlike. Kicking straight into existential philosophy, ‘Book of Revelation’ spares no time in setting the tone for the rest of the album. Apparently with little time for creationism, despite its religious references, Pierce is quite clear on his point of view: statements such as ”when we die, we die”, or ”there’s no heaven, and no hell” indicative of the nihilistic stance of the album.

Having established his mindset, the next task is to decipher how this influences the narrator’s attitude to life and love. The answer is a singular mixture of superiority and self-flagellating regret. The former is evident in ‘Days’’ cocksure statement of intent: “days go by / and I never needed you”. Oh really? Except you had to write a song about it? A similar blame transference occurs in ‘Hard to Love’, where the backhanded compliment is king: “I would never leave you / but you’re hard to love” leaves the listener just as confused as the real-life recipient presumably was.

Suddenly, about halfway through, our protagonist is overcome with an attack of self-doubt, and the tone changes from one of blame to reflection. A detailed description of the lyrical content is unnecessary – with blunt song titles such as ‘I Don’t Know How to Love’, ‘Please Don’t Leave’, and ‘I Need a Doctor’, the bipolar nature of the album is clear from a brief perusal of its sleeve. There’s a lovely choral segue into the Tomitaesque synths of ‘Searching for Heaven’, which matches its spiritual theme beautifully, as if our narrator was despondent before St Peter, unable to accept the existence of something beyond the material, even as it is proven before his very eyes.

‘I Need A Doctor’ actually provides some light relief with its uptempo lightweight beats but continues the disturbing lyrical tone, with talk of loving someone because they’re childlike and stupid, and thus being able to refrain from killing them. ‘How It Ended’ appropriately closes the album, and is arguably the only positive, uplifting song to be found here, with its shiny, happy façade of longing for an unrequited love to return: it’s a much-needed ray of sunshine in an altogether darkly-drawn set.

Musically, this could be the sunnier, faster cousin of Joy Division, with its abstract synths and Hookian bass. Whether by design or coincidence, there’s hints of contemporaries Futureheads and the xx in there too. The sound is defined by its architectural simplicity; however there’s one too many major to relative minor shifts and use of semitone intervals to achieve the depth across twelve tracks that the band surely aspire to. This isn’t, frankly, a masterpiece, especially from a musical point of view. Perhaps the departure of guitarist Adam Kessler has affected their breadth more than the band care to admit. However, there are some astonishingly candid lyrics, especially the polarisation between externalised angst and internalised self-doubt. A cautionary tale for those still learning about matters of the heart: don’t try this at home, folks!


‘Portamento’, the sophomore album from the Drums, is available now from Moshi Moshi / Island.

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