A sense of perspective is sometimes a necessary thing to appreciate a body of work. At times, its true nature may not reveal itself when exploring its individual parts. A good time then to delve into Dubstar’s new album Two.
Previously, this writer felt a little disappointed by the band’s last single release, ‘Token’ (see TEC review previously). Initially, those thoughts suggested that the song “lacks some of the bite and downbeat grittiness of imperial phase Dubstar”. With a suitably long gap between that exposure and the spinning up of Dubstar’s latest long player, that opinion has been reversed. Quite how that particular chemistry has worked its magic is unclear, but Two has emerged as a remarkably solid album in which those component parts each serve as sturdy foundations for the whole.
As previously explored, the revival of Dubstar saw Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie coming to terms with their legacy. “Sarah and I always had a bit of a sense of unfinished business” comments 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.”
Joining the duo on this journey is Stephen Hague, whose production chops have graced records from the likes of New Order, OMD and Pet Shop Boys. Hague had also taken on production duties during Dubstar’s 90s era (including their classic 1995 album Disgraceful), meaning this was a return to a 3-way alchemy that had served the band well in the past.
As with many bands, Dubstar’s activities were derailed by the COVID dramas, so unsurprisingly there’s a few tracks that touch on that experience here. ‘Token’, which opens the album, features tumbling piano and some strident rhythms alongside Sarah Blackwood’s distinctive vocal delivery (“But now that the fever has begun to fade/I’m drawing a line under the time that we made“). While our original review was somewhat dismissive, here the track appears transformed into a breezy, fresh delight.
That spark of inspiration from darker times also includes the reflective pop of ‘Hygiene Strip’ as well as the brighter tones of ‘I Can See You Outside’, with its musings on social distancing (“Open the case/In a place where you can get away”). The latter tracks closer to that flavour of melancholic pop that Dubstar excelled at during the 1990s, boosted here with some engaging guitar work.
Perhaps the album’s best track, however, is the crunchy ‘Tectonic Plates’. Originally conceived as an expression of suppressed feelings, this composition offers up some nice vocal lifts and some effective guitar fills. Lyrical couplets such as “There goes the girl/She’s drifted far beyond this world” have a charm which, matched with the track’s dynamic physicality, give it an earthy, solid feel (which seems somewhat apt, given the track’s title).
At the same time, the album still serves up plenty of other sterling moments. This includes the clipped melodies of ‘Blood’ (worryingly inspired by Wilkie spending a period in hospital). There’s a darker quality to the lyrical narrative here in which Blackwood’s wishes for some Karmic justice over a hospital-bound tormentor steps over a line (“I waited years to see you cry/Never thought you would ace it with goodbye”).
Meanwhile, the stylish and stately ‘Tears’ switches things down a bit. There’s some lush strings arrangements here on a song that includes lyrical musings such as “In the lean years you knew so much more/It takes a lifetime to learn to fail”. This appears to be a commentary on Dubstar’s own musical journey as Chris Wilkie comments: “It’s about me and Sarah in some ways, and the relationship. It does take a lifetime to learn to fail. To take it and deal with it and have another go.”
Two then changes gear yet again with the charming ‘Social Proof’. This outing throws a nod towards 60s bubblegum pop with its jangly guitars and Blackwood’s bright vocal yearnings. Keeping a lighter tone, ‘Kissing To Be Unkind’ serves up a more self-reflective, moodier moment. Wistful lines such as “Wearing rejection like a painted cross” have a compelling power to them and there’s a simpler, looser arrangement here which works to the song’s benefit.
The album closes out with a surprising cover of REM’s ‘Perfect Circle’. There’s a fragile quality to this number with its mournful piano tones. It’s not Dubstar’s first time taking a crack at a cover (it’s often forgotten that their best-known tune ‘Not So Manic Now’ is itself a cover version), but here Dubstar have somehow made this composition by Georgia’s Finest their own.
The end result is that Two is a refreshingly vivid album. It’s perhaps a step removed from the more raw, kitchen sink narrative that Dubstar originally were feted for (which might explain this writer’s initial reluctance to engage with the outfit’s new offerings). But Blackwood’s engaging Northern burr is present and correct and the arrangement and production of the album is crisp and lean. On that basis, it’s a pleasure to walk back those earlier comments and applaud Dubstar’s return as a welcome one.
Two is out 6th May 2022. https://dubstar.fanlink.to/alltwo