Off With Their Heads – In Desolation

In Desolation coverI think one of the things I love most about Minneapolis’s Off With Their Heads is how clear, accessible and honest their darkness is.

Let me explain: there are a lot of ways in which an artist can submit themselves to painful self-examination, and no matter what approach you take it’s likely that the result will involve painful intensity or histrionic lashing out. Where Off With Their Heads differ ever so slightly is that singer Ryan North doesn’t dress up his self-loathing and bitterness, instead addressing his themes with brilliant clarity.

A rule of thumb in writing lyrics that resonate with people is to make them general, so that any listener can feel the song is about or for them, but to include references to landmarks – geographical or personal or whatever – to ground the song in a personally experienced reality. I’m sure there are about a billion exceptions to this vague guideline, but with Off With Their Heads what’s interesting is the general lack of specificity. There are a lot of I’s and You’s in Ryan’s lyrics but names are much rarer. All the same, they’re a band that evidently resonate hugely with people, as their success over the last few years has been significant.

Musically the band have never been particularly unusual; they nail fat, fast-paced power chords and punk rock drum rhythms with Ryan’s distinct throaty roars. So it speaks to the universality of these lyrical themes, and the simplistic appeal of three-chord punk rock, that the band have become as popular as they are. I can’t speak for anyone else, but personally I find the lyrics really cathartic. Self-loathing or self-condemnation are things I feel every so often, but I’m not really one for dressing up my feelings as anything other than dumb human emotion – so I enjoy the crude honesty on offer here. It’s the same reason I think Snuff have written some of the most beautiful love songs I’ve ever heard – it’s because they’re so simple and disarmingly charming that you can’t see them as anything other than perfectly honest; a distinct contrast to the overwrought get-into-girl-pants anthems from the legions of dull prettyboy bands.

So, lengthy introductions aside: In Desolation, their new album, the first punk rock release on Epitaph since 2001, the first post-Fat record from the band, their sophomore effort… how is it? Probably the simplest summary is that it’s more of the same. The band have a formula and it’s one best not messed with. That said, the songwriting on display is a step up from both Hospitals and From The Bottom. The twin buzzsaw powerchord assault occasionally splinters to allow for some simple hooky lead guitar; the opening song ‘Drive’ has a great intro lick that’s built out of just a few notes and slides.

The dynamics of their sound are a little more sophisticated too, particularly in closing track ‘Clear the Air’ which steadily builds in both musical and lyrical intensity, concluding: “”I wanted to tell you, I wanted to share / Some important details that you’re unaware / I want you to listen, I want you to care / I’ll choke to death if I don’t clear the air right now”.

Lyrically the album is pretty unified, which is a little surprising as Ryan admitted in a recent interview that quite a few songs on here were written in the last few weeks before recording was finalised. Still, the album drifts between themes of dependence, loss, heartbreak, failure and regret. The key motif of the album is looking back on a past relationship, from the escape anthem ‘Drive’ to ‘XXYZX’, an articulation of failing to measure up to self-expectation. A couple of tracks which stand aside from this trend are ‘Their Own Medicine’, which I think is about constantly regretting not standing up for yourself during your youth, and ‘The Eyes of Death’ about the ways in which the death of a loved one changes you. That said the latter this fits in with the rest of the album as it ties into the idea of how essential a partner is to support you.

A couple more favourite tracks, not yet mentioned, are ‘Trying to Breath’ with its quiet “And I’ll just focus on trying to breath” bridge preceding an explosive pre-chorus, the numb and heartbreaking ‘All I Can Do’ about self-anaesthetisation and isolation, and ‘I Just Want You To Know’ – which is perhaps the most upbeat song on the album, fondly addressing an ex about the desire to protect them from your failure with the exhortation “I just want you to know that I think about you all the time.”

In Desolation is a solid album, musically as full of great hooks and punchy power chords and vocally as intense and personal as ever. It’s not a great leap forward but it’s a solid few steps on, and I’m happy to walk in step with this band, arm-in-arm and fists in the air.

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