“Is your time running out? Family, fortune, goin’ up in flames…” Baltimore’s Lower Dens have never made music dripping with positivity. It’s no surprise then, to hear this line just thirty seconds in to “Sucker’s Shangri-La”, the opening track of the foursome’s third album Escape From Evil. What is surprising, however, is what happens over the course of the next forty-odd minutes. It all starts with a fire and fool’s gold, sure, a slow-burn build of reverb-drenched drums and guitars and an impossible ideal, but the ugly twin truths of ashes produced and unattainable Arcadias are adorned with streamers and synths and confronted head-on.
In that process, guitarist and lead vocalist Jana Hunter and her bandmates have created their most urgent, accessible, and, ultimately, best work to date. There’s no less heartbreak to be found here than on Twin Hand Movement or Nootropics—check the lovelorn yearning of “Ondine” and its “I will treat you better” lyrical refrain, a plea made all the more convincing by the singer’s effortless shift in pitch—but living in those songs could begin to feel like being stuck in stage one of the Kübler-Ross model. There was a murky sense of foreboding to those records intensified both by hazy production that kept Hunter’s voice low in the mix and by the band’s tendency to slip into psychedelia. Uncomfortable situations, both lyrical and musical, simply lingered. On Escape From Evil, however, death, discomfort, and dissolving relationships are treated not as potential catastrophes, but as opportunities for catharsis.
That emphasis on directness is mirrored in the album’s pop-leaning sonic palette, a kaleidoscope of glittering synths and perfect guitar phrases held in place by the tried and true combination of Geoff Graham’s alternately slithering and stuttering bass and Nate Nelson’s metronomic beats. With production assists from Chris Coady, Ariel Rechtshaid, and John Congleton, it’s probably no surprise that the band's third album finds them largely doing away with the spacy, expansive tones of their previous output, and distilling the hooks on each track. The staccato synths of “Electric Current” seem destined to stab their way into memory; the “I wanna be with you alone” sing-along chorus of “Quo Vadis” is inescapable; the cacophony of “Company” ensures repeat listens; first single “To Die In L.A.”, with its chorus of rangy, interlocking harmonies, is an instant classic.
For a clearer indication of just how far Lower Dens have come, look no further than the album version of “Non Grata” with this version from a 2013 split 7”. The original dragged like a barge through the Chesapeake Bay, leaving Hunter’s melodies drowning in its wake. It’s reimagined here as a dance-rock powerhouse of precision guitars and bizarrely catchy melodies, imbued with a newfound sense of urgency that permeates not just this track, but the rest of the album. This streamlined approach suits Hunter’s voice well, as it's now allowed to burst through the mix like an animal uncaged at opportune moments throughout. She’s always served as the de facto captain of Lower Dens, but she proves here that she’s more than capable of serving as their anchor as well.
In the weeks and months leading up to the album’s release, Hunter has spoken extensively about confrontation of emotions, specifically “confronting [grief] directly and then using something to lift yourself out of it at the same time.” Escape From Evil is exactly as its title would have you believe, then, the story of an artist facing her demons and exorcising them. In confronting their own personal heartbreaks and terrors, she and her bandmates have created their most engaging and universal album to date.