By Adam Downer | 15 August 2013
The Dodos have always had the ability to write phenomenal music—that much is clear from their mass of earlier material—but Carrier might be the first time they’ve had the emotional weight to match. It immediately feels different from what followers of the band might identify as a typical “Dodos album”; its melancholy feels more directed, its oeuvre more focused. It has a distinct atmosphere, the songs and music in service to something greater than the pieces conjure on their own. True to its name, Carrier’s got quite a bit of weight to bear, though what exactly that is proves tricky to identify. The first lyric asks, “What is the song? What is love?”, so at least we know we have ourselves a love story. But, as becomes evident, it’s a love story in the David Foster Wallace sense—a love story that’s also a ghost story.
There are quite a few ghosts looming over Carrier, both lyrical and literal. Of the latter is ex-Women guitarist Chris Reimer, who before his death had become a full-time member of the Dodos. Though he did not record on Carrier, the album has at least two signifiers that mark his presence: first, the band’s shift from chugging acoustic guitars and wry plaintiveness to clean electric guitars and melancholic plaintiveness betrays his influence, and second is the record’s tremendous sense of absence. There’s an unknowable something hanging over Carrier, a “substance out of reach,” as it’s put twice. The “substance” comes to stand for multiple things past: family, time, ex-lovers, old friends, perhaps even Reimer himself. An oft referred-to “you” appears and gets spoken to so wistfully and earnestly, you’d think it was a portrait of the person rather than the person himself. On “Substance,” when Meric Long cries, “And you will forget and I will remember!”, the lyric may be in future tense, but the delivery puts it in past; “You” already sounds long gone, leaving the emotional wreckage behind for Long to clean up. To say Carrier sounds haunted would be to put it mildly.
Though Carrier has its fair share of heavy lyrics, I hesitate to call it depressing. It’s not so much a record’s worth of maudlin introspection as it is a therapeutic and honest expulsion, sincere with its feelings but not melodramatic about them. On “Holiday,” the central lyric is “Holiday / Can’t recover,” but Long’s delivery makes it sound like a mumbled tune one might sing walking down the street. Carrier bares its emotions without romance or pleas to sympathy, and in doing so invites the listener to adopt the same uncolored worldview. Take this lyric from “Family”: “Quiet car rides / Memories of / Consenting adults / Waiting on us.” The lyric calls to mind a familiar image: a ride with parents long-resigned to live on the track they chose for themselves and to do so without complaint; in ten words, we get the safety and happiness in the backseat, the patience and quiet in the front, and the nostalgia for the time in the former, all in Long’s almost clinically dry voice. Whereas another band might play up the tragically middle-aged parents or really dig into the nostalgia of the memory, the Dodos let the weight of the image carry itself, as if applying some extratextual meaning would cheapen it. Though the moment is simple and fleeting, it sticks well after it passes.
This is how Carrier sets itself apart from the Dodos’ back catalogue. Whereas Visiter (2008) thrilled with catchy songs and a wild, unpredictable side, and No Color (2011) proved formidable in how it was a nearly clinical distillation of the Dodos sound, Carrier treats its sound as a natural extension of its subject, making the record’s choices sound organic. Nothing seems done for the thrill of it—even the guitar solo that closes “Confidence” feels earned (and tempered, especially when compared to the raucous, left-field jams the band could crank out on Visiter). This isn’t to say the technical prowess has vanished; rather, it’s been applied to different ends. The syncopated drum-beat in “Substance” is as confused and vigorous as the lyricist, and, buttressed by a well-utilized horn section, serves to create a stirring, accusatory anthem. A similar effect is employed on “Relief,” which slyly employs an odd time signature to unsettle the tune, but turns into a passionate common-time stomp by the end. Then there’s the way the reverb-heavy guitar lick on “The Current” perfectly captures the flowing of water and the passiveness of Long as he belts, “If this love comes unto me / I’m with it! I’m with it!” I could go on, but the point is that even though it’s as proficient as the Dodos have always been, albeit in subtler ways, there’s nothing about this record that feels arbitrary. It’s an album that feels like honesty, or at least a very well done facsimile of it.
I’ve made a point of describing Meric Long’s voice as admirably detached, but there’s a point on Carrier where that doesn’t hold entirely true. On “The Ocean,” his voice sounds airier in tenor, as if he’s snuck a twinge of optimism in right at the end of the record. The track itself is a culmination of the frustration, confusion, and despair laid out by the preceding ten songs, yet is arguably the cheeriest on Carrier. With his voice unusually light, Long goes through a few key lyrics like “There’s no need to run at all” and “Why won’t you be where I want you to be?” The latter becomes a mantra that’s an almost blissful apology, a glimmer of light that with repetition becomes contextually heartbreaking. For a record so dominated by loss, the record culminates in a celebratory dance around that simple question. And yet it doesn’t seem out of place; Carrier is an optimistic record without ever resorting to platitudes. It takes the losses that continue to pile up with the passage of time and lives with them with drums and heart-swelling strings. It’s not denying the sadness of loss. It’s choosing to survive it.