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Time Washes Away Everything: A Dirty Beaches Retrospective

By Robin Smith | 14 November 2014

There are places where trains run twenty-four hours a day, where that thing we call the end of the line doesn’t really exist—though the connections to places beyond do. There are stops where warm, automated voices say “change here” and mean it as a prediction, not a suggestion. There are journeys that start in one direction and then go in another, where passengers sit in silence in cities they’re not from. There’s a lot of swapping and beginning to belong and ceasing to settle down, and it all happens because of wheels and routes. There are drifters. They get on and get off and get on.

Alex Hungtai is a drifter. There’s only so much cash in his wallet, only so many conversations he can have with the same people, only so many streets he can walk down before he’s looked up at every building. Since he’s been a musician, it seems he’s always been writing about displacement—or else writing with it. On Badlands (2011) it was tucked away in his pocket, his lo-fi crooner ballads coloured with the unease that now slithers through his music. Riffs were stolen from faraway noise bands and highways were celebrated; a sense of rock’s freewheeling potentiality was caged away in his mind. He longed for wind through his hair but was conjuring the images from a bedroom where he could only reproduce the sensation.

It never came, but Drifters (2013) did: a heart-breaking, artificed journey through the night that captured Hungtai at his most hopelessly nomadic—getting on to leave and getting off to scream at every new destination. The songs sounded like they were running through houseless cities, full of buildings with bright, glitzy billboards and empty rooms. Inspired by Suicide’s forward-motion synth-punk, they rolled onward, the tracks clunking awkwardly under Hungtai’s determined feet. Unlike Suicide, he couldn’t find one thing worth laughing about—his screams were inflected with tragic sighs and measured fist pumps, like a wolf howling at the moon on a moving trolley.

In Hungtai’s music, two things are forever: transience and despair. His songs are tied to both, and tend to watch them coincide, knowing that one is shadowed by the other. Drifters was presented with Love is the Devil, an uncomfortable ambient record that was about as warming as sepia toned pictures of strangers, taken a hundred years ago. The record’s sharp strings and unmodulated, droning fogginess made for a history lesson of Hungtai’s romantic tragedies and personal failures, but it didn’t feel like it was finished. Listening to it now, the pain doesn’t feel any further away; its archaic production and far-removed classical resonations speak to a constant, renewed suffering, serving as living proof that the oldest traditions can be married to a brand new heartbreak. That’s one thing a journey through the night can’t take away.

Hungtai recently said that “all pain is temporary,” but it’s the one emotion that’s endured through all his work. It’s Dirty Beaches’ only consistent aesthetic. His new and final record, Stateless, is wounded by leaving, in a very permanent way. Within the worlds of his earlier work, pain only felt temporary, because there was promise of the next place to fuck up: on Badlands, his half-smiled pop songs suggested that this would soon be the past. Grooves were never crushed, but instead faded away, suggesting the intangible kind of division that takes place the further down the motorway you are. On Drifters, though, Hungtai realised that going away and staying put are two actions performed at once. You can re-emerge in a different place, and be changed because of it, but zip codes are phases, part of a numerical system you pass through.

On Stateless, there are no rhythms to be carried by, no beats provoking movement, and, crucially, Hungtai isn’t singing. His vocals had radically different persuasions on Badlands and Drifters, but they were a reminder of mortality and its role in displacing individuals. Stateless is different, though. This place neglects Hungtai, but with its constant hum and never-ending bluster, its focus turns to the next drifter. Pain is temporary for one, but not for all. It’s similar to Love is the Devil in this way, because it suggests a sickness that lives on long after your band or your body is gone—a sickness contracted to others in photos, buildings, and textbooks.

When he wrote Love is the Devil, Hungtai described himself as a “rotten piece of shit,” but introducing this record, he talks in the first person plural—these are “our” mistakes, “our” nothing. There are no melodies in Stateless, so the city doesn’t feel personal; it doesn’t crease into Hungtai’s exit routes. Outside of the music, his destination is clearer, but inside there’s no analysis of this as Dirty Beaches’ final chapter. There’s no singing, so he doesn’t say goodbye. Instead, he gets trapped within methods and “algorithms,” things that will process others after him.

Parting the synth-laden ambience are a droning saxophone, that whistles like wind, and a slow-moving viola that struggles around skyscrapers. It suggests movement the way it happens in a bad dream where you want to run away but can only run in place. For Hungtai, it’s the ultimate nightmare: no more drifting. Him and collaborator Vittorio Demarin are credited for the music on Stateless, but it’s more likely they’ve been trapped inside it. The music swallows them. The meditative ambience that comprises the record’s four pieces make it noisier and more difficult than the most dissonant of experiments—the layers on “Pacific Ocean,” in particular, busy one another like architecture peaking out behind more architecture. For the last Dirty Beaches record, that feels fitting: Stateless loses Hungtai, who has always dreamt of his next turnover, within the city itself, among its bizarrely folded infrastructure. All that remains are the buildings on the front cover of the record, which look entirely fake—like they’ve been rendered, rather than photographed.

So when I listen to Stateless, I don’t see Hungtai. He’s not in the picture like he is in the strangely blissful covers for Badlands and Drifters—Dirty Beaches already lost its protagonist with Love is the Devil. But I am reminded of an earlier version of him that I briefly saw, one night last year: that night, I saw Hungtai play at Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club, a gig that was disastrously promoted but understandably obscure. At the last minute, the venue billed Hungtai as additional support for post-hardcore kids Rolo Tomassi. The damage didn’t seem enormous at the time, but it was. Instead of playing to a room empty but for the shrugging shoulders in the corners, he played to a few eye-rollers testing out their appetite for punk. It’s not their fault, but the atmosphere became furious. The bemused sniggers were counterpointed by Hungtai throwing his mic stand into the empty space in front of the stage, like a tool he’d been cheaply compensated with after hours of wasted work. Every chest pump felt more unwilling, every scream more reasoned by the mistreatment. The place bore down on Hungtai, isolating and extracting him, deciding upon his very movements. And then he was done.

I wanted him to say something about it after the show, but he didn’t. He thanked the audience and moved on. I wanted him to spread the word online, but there were only more of his positive retweets, the ones that are replenished every day, even now, in the dozens. And then he went to the next city, probably London, the city of all cities, where something else happened—maybe you can fill me in on that. All I know is that he was touring, drifting, living miles and miles from the memory he had just created for me: one of the most inspiring and terrifying nights of my life. It might have meant nothing to him, and as the wheels spun over the asphalt, the night might have truly been washed away. But if I could capture that show—in a picture, in a drone—it would last forever. Time can make you forget, but memories wash up on new shores.