Rock Review: Making Art Out of Homelessness — “Drifters/Love Is the Devil”

After the critical success of 2011’s “Badlands,” Alex Zhang Hungtai returns with the release of “Drifters/Love is the Devil” — a double album that expresses trauma in two devastating ways — the direct and the atmospheric.

Drifters/ Love is the Devil, Alex Zhang Hungtai (Dirty Beaches), Zoo Music

Alex Zhang Hungtai (Dirty Beaches)

Musician Alex Zhang Hungtai (aka Dirty Beaches) is a drifter. Born in Taiwan and raised in Montreal, he sees his home as “a collage of all these different, fractured landscapes” that he tries to “piece together.”

The performer’s sense of not belonging was a major theme in the last Dirty Beaches’ album, the compelling Badlands. In that disc, Hungtai channeled a variety of characters whose discontent exaggerated the social alienation he had experienced in real life. In his latest project, the autobiographical Drifters/Love is the Devil, the musician has jettisoned his personas — it is just Hungtai. Most of this 75-minute-long, double album ruminates over the fact that Hungtai feels he has no place to call home, a sadness amplified by his loneliness in the wake of a devastating breakup.

The structure and pacing of this haunting double album is unconventional because while Hungtai is obsessed with concept there is no storyline for easy access. Love is the Devil isn’t a continuation of Drifters so much as it functions as a snapshot of Hungtai’s life, a psychological picture snapped during the moment of crisis reflected in Drifters. The latter directly speaks to his trauma because most of its tracks feature Hungtai’s vocals and lyrics; Love is the Devil, comprised mostly of electroacoustic soundscapes, is more impressionistic.

Hungtai confounds the listener in the first track, “Night Walk.” The song is driven by a minimalist techno beat accompanied by a funky bass riff, but Hungtai slathers his vocals in reverb and introduces faint metallic sounds in the background. Ultimately, the song succeeds in becoming tantalizingly disconcerting, which sets the tone for the remainder of Drifters. The following track, “I Dream in Neon,” is propelled by a no-wave groove that is reminiscent of Suicide, which Hungtai has named as a major influence.

The Suicide-esque grooves continue on “Casino Lisboa,” which features an incredibly raw mix, its synth texture even, surprisingly, churning out carnival music. “ELLI” features a simultaneously grainy and bouncy electronic foundation that is set against Hungtai’s uncharacteristically clean vocals. His voice on this track in particular is eerily similar to that of Alan Vega’s, the vocalist of Suicide.

Hungtai’s most eccentric vocal performances come with the next two tracks. He sounds deranged on “Aurevoir Mon Visage,” which sees him yelling incoherently over a rapid, somewhat tribal, percussion loop. Following this is the 10-minute-long “Mirage Hall,” which is a multi-phased house music send-up. Its constant, clap-heavy drum machine beat would actually be danceable if its mix wasn’t quite so abrasive, but Hungtai’s slurred Spanish exclamations make this track the most forlorn on the album. It doesn’t help that the song closes as a metallic no-wave trudge reminiscent of Cop-era Swans.

Drifters ends with the relatively tranquil instrumental “Landscapes in Mist.” Still, the piece, which moves at the pace of ambient music, is every bit as unsettling as the songs that precede it because of its sour saxophone notes and field recording of dripping water. The tune acts as a smooth transition for the aptly named Love is the Devil.

The cover art for “Drifters/Love is the Devil.”

While the compositions on Drifters embrace the atmospheric (if static), the compositions on Love Is the Devil venture into the realm of the formless. “Greyhound at Night” opens the album and is characterized by scattered, lazy horns and light, intermittent cymbal hits. The sound is generally ‘prettier’ than the material on Drifters, but the music still evokes the same sense of crushing emotional despair.

The title track is one of the disc’s standouts: it is a deeply moving piece of contemporary classical music, a dirge generated out of synthesized orchestral strings. Hungtai claims to have written the song while in tears. “Alone at the Danube River” is also a very moving piece. It consists of the musician slowly picking at his guitar, which is either inaudible or completely absent on a lot of the album. A wash of ambient synth overwhelms his forlorn instrument towards the end of the piece.

With its vocal part, the penultimate track, “Like the Ocean We Part,” breaks the instrumental mold. On this track, Hungtai sounds more emotionally exhausted than ever, perhaps because (given the dramatic arc of the album) he has reflected on his pain and can come up with no response but enervated despair. If Badlands gives the listener Hungtai trying to escape himself by using his music to dream himself into the lives of others, Drifters/Love Is the Devil represents his ‘creative’ defeat — he has no choice but to imagine what it is like to be himself.

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