“I fell off the world…”
Dancepop duo Dubstar have been lighting their creative fires again recently, which is leading to the release of an album this May and also a fresh composition to herald its arrival. New outing ‘Token’ offers up some smooth pop, although arguably without some of the edge that you might expect from the seasoned outfit. But before delving into the new composition, it’s perhaps worth exploring Dubstar’s impressive musical history up to this point.
The 1990s seemed to be an odd period for electronic pop, particularly in an era where indie rock was asserting its grasp. The likes of Pet Shop Boys were keeping the flame with a suitably high profile, but it often felt like there was some essential element missing from the broader music scene.
The arrival of Dubstar during this time might have seemed an unusual direction for any act to embark on; a definite move against the grain. Yet the chemistry that Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie brought to bear was a talent for engaging rhythms, understated melodies and a blunt, kitchen sink narrative to their lyrics (given a significant boost by Sarah Blackwood’s Northern burr).
Certainly, 1995’s critically-acclaimed album Disgraceful (notable for its provocative pencil case cover) proved to be a formidable album care of solid compositions such as the soaring ‘Stars’, the soap opera drama of ‘Not So Manic Now’ and the slow burn appeal of the album’s title track. Dubstar’s work always employed a melancholic element mixed with everyday observations that provided an essential human quality to their compositions. At times, it seemed like an electropop approach to The Smiths’ art for lyrical compositions delving around the mundane. Tracks such as ‘Ghost’ (from 1997’s Goodbye) has a sweep and a bittersweet narrative delivered in simple, yet effective strokes. Equally, the dramatic stark pop of ‘Say The Worst Thing First’ captured a dazzling use of instrumentation and arrangement.
Dubstar’s path took them through three exemplary albums via the Food Records label before Blackwood signed up to enigmatic outfit Client. Although a fourth Dubstar release was still mooted in the 2000s, the idea appeared to fizzle out. In fact, it wasn’t until 2018’s One that the reins of Dubstar were taken up again for an album outing. “Sarah and I always had a bit of a sense of unfinished business” suggests Wilkie, “There are things about the 90s which I’m very proud of and things I’d have liked to have done differently. Now we’ve got the opportunity to do it exactly how we felt it could have been.”
Wilkie had also reconnected with producer Stephen Hague with a view to working on the next Dubstar album, although the advent of lockdown dashed those immediate plans. Despite this, the trio managed to trundle along as most musicians had to do during the troubling period of the COVID-19 pandemic. Working remotely, in 2020 the trio served up the reflective pop of ‘Hygiene Strip’ which, combined with its on-the-nose video offered an odd commentary on the strange times of the lockdown period (lines such “Must be illegal to kiss by now” seemed to be more of a critical stab at necessary social restrictions rather than the tale of love during the time of COVID that was intended).
Meanwhile, 2021 saw the release of the more dynamic ‘Tectonic Plates’, a crunchier affair with nice vocal lifts which was clearly pulling from the classic Dubstar template.
Now, ahead of the release of their new album (the snappily-titled Two), Dubstar have unveiled new song ‘Token’ as a taster of things to come. Here, tumbling piano and some strident rhythms back up Sarah Blackwood’s distinctive vocal delivery. The lyrical narrative draws again from imagery and ideas culled from the strange landscape of the lockdown period (“But now that the fever has begun to fade/I’m drawing a line under the time that we made“). There’s also a polish and a sheen to ‘Token’ which is a testament to Stephen Hague’s production chops.
This perhaps highlights the chief issue with ‘Token’, which is pleasant enough but lacks some of the bite and downbeat grittiness of imperial phase Dubstar. Naturally, it would be unfair to ask the duo to simply rinse and repeat in composing tunes, so a desire to evolve their sound seems to be a sensible arc. It’s clear that there’s an attempt to craft an older, more mature sound here. But at the same time, that spark that drove albums such as Disgraceful seems to be eluding them (with the notable exception, perhaps, of the perky ‘Tectonic Plates’).
Whether the material contained on Two takes a different path remains to be seen. ‘Token’ is serviceable pop fare, but Dubstar seem to be setting their own bar low here.
‘Token’ is out now.
Two is due for release 6th May 2022.