"Love Is Dead," proclaims the debut release by Lowry. What, however, is meant by this? Was love a once-alive thing that is now dead? Do they mean dead, like rotting-away dead, or dead like a dead battery or merely out of fashion dead? Or was love never alive to begin with—is it an idea that is always-already dead on arrival? This is a dangerous idea to play with: not only have many others expressed the exact same sentiment (Tokio Hotel has a song with the same title, as does former Suede frontman Brett Anderson, and both Kerli Kõiv and The Mr. T. Experience beat Lowry to the punch, album-title-wise), but the juxtaposition of love and death opens itself up to uncritical, navel-gazing, woe-is-me mopery—and really, haven't we had enough of that in the past decade, with the emergent popularity of that travesty of a genre blanketly referred to as "emo"?
Fear not, Lowry is better than this.
Many reviewers have brought up Death Cab for Cutie in talking about Lowry (apparently they have mentioned DCFC as an influence). The comparison to Death Cab is an easy one to make, just because the timbre of Alex Lowry's voice is a near-match to that of Ben Gibbard and the thought that first came to mind as I heard the album's opening bars was "Oh, it's The Postal Service." This is a short-lived impression, however, as the longer you listen to it, the less you hear Gibbard—that's certainly a good thing. The more apt comparison, however, is to that of The Bends and Ok Computer era Radiohead. If Ok Computer is what happened when Britpop decided to listen to progressive rock, Love Is Dead is its Americana counterpoint: banjos, mandolins and guitars are layered with a prog-rock studio sensibility. Most of the songs on Love Is Dead are longer than your standard 3-minute pop ditty and involve several distinct movements (often thematically or musically linked), some even breaking out of the standard 4/4 time signature (I was able to find some sections in 7/4 and 6/4, but my counting may have been off). The guitar work on the album also calls to mind Radiohead, as some of the soaring riffs sound like those of Jonny Greenwood. Musically speaking, this is an interesting and rewarding album to listen to. Lyrically, despite lyrics like, "The question is love / The answer is enough to bring you down, down, down," the album remains on a remarkably even keel (well, and even keel for an album titled "Love Is Dead).
If one thinks of love long enough, there is an unavoidable and somewhat sobering conclusion: this cannot end well. Love ends, one way or another: feelings fade (and may result in breakup, divorce or perpetually widening chasm of emotional deadness and ennui) or people die (as is acknowledged in so many wedding vows). Love is, in a sense, destined to die, as are we. So it goes. And this may be what Lowry is getting at.
While the album certainly has its moments of bitterness—in "Wicked Witch of Bushwick," the chorus repeats: "I'm running from you now / I'm running from you now / You wicked witch / I'm hiding from you now / I'm hiding from you now / You ruthless bitch"—these are balanced with wistfulness, as in the opening track "Whiskey," where the object of [a prior?] affection is lovingly visualized by the narrator: "There you are / In the sun / Drinking whiskey / Having fun." These are short term concerns, however, given some of the rest of the album's content, notably the inadvisably-named "You Die Alone" (because, really, who wants to listen to an album that reminds you of this?). Interspersed throughout the repeated choruses of "You die alone, my love" (in what is, given the lyrical content, a rather upbeat song) are both an assurance and a wish: "What I forgot to say is I'm doing ok"; "What I forgot to say is I hope you're ok." The essence of the complicated and torturous relationship between love and death is addressed in the middle of the album on "Roads":
Too much painful, exasperating, death-defying, wonder-striking beauty
Too much maddening, heavyweight, backbreaking, awe-inspiring beauty
Too much strangling, love-entangled, life-affirming, vibrating beauty
Too much cosmic, breath-taking, fortifying, forever-dying beauty
I was at one point puzzled when I heard Alex Lowry sing about "the devil [...] in the sugar jar," but given the above verses, it makes sense. Love is both wonderful and tragic, and as much as we are drawn to it for how wonderful it is, it's gonna hurt—the devil is in the sugar jar indeed, and the hope is that the pleasure balances out the pain. But what else do we have?