he ant is an industrious insect, all flex and fuss. Fireflies, however, don't seem to have a whole lot of purpose, save the obvious aesthetic one (which ants lack). If fireflies could carry anything, they might carry Doveman. "Doveman" itself is a kind of misnomer, one that falsely suggests both freedom and peace. Self-described both as "lamp rock" and "insomnia pop" by vocalist/keyboardist/songwriter Thomas Bartlett, Doveman's modus operandi lies more in a hazy, glowing flight—an overwhelmingly post-evening affair. Their debut album, The Acrobat, catches night-bruised piano-pop songs meandering into weary and somnambulistic discord. If it's free, it's free to falter, and if it's peaceful, the peace is comes only from wearing itself out. It's like slow-core without the boring self-importance and rote sensitivity, without the metaphorical anchor of core. When a living thing reaches exhaustion, it usually loses its grace, but gains an incidental beauty, which isn't inherently transcendent, but it is rare.
“Honey” is a non-starter, a festering piano-and-banjo procession set against a current of harmonium-like drone and ultravivid electronic clinking, the sound of mason jars waltzing clumsily in a janitor’s closet. Like most things under a microscope though, Doveman’s music stretches out on the blurred line dividing the detailed and the unrecognizable. After four minutes of going nowhere and a trumpet solo that would slide geriatrics into painless nostalgia if its wheezing tone didn’t somehow seem like a tight-lipped mockery of lifelessness rather than its analgesic, the song somehow unravels further. Everyone faces their own ivy walls and smiles a collective smile; the drums we thought were the anchor slowly dissolve into muffled breeze, Bartlett’s fingers twitch on the keys, banjo notes plink with indifference.
The faux-fatigue and jazzy looseness is what makes Doveman unique, and it’s nowhere better exemplified than in Bartlett’s voice. The instant temptation is to suggest the wispy intimations of Nick Drake. Well, oddly enough, Nick Drake was a swift runner in his school days (a True Pop Fact), and Bartlett might be more like Drake after 12 hours of wind sprints and no replenishment of electrolytes (Gatorade not being a commercial product until the late 60’s), breathless and weakened. Bartlett is performative, melodramatic, and oddly unapproachable, reaching into the limits of his vocal range and letting his words sputter out with an erratic ethereality, while Drake was a perfectly understandable gold-hearted mope (for better and worse).
The Acrobat is best when it strays into happy accidents; songs like “Teacup” have the strange distinction of disrupting the mood simply by cohering too much. Not surprisingly, it’s these moments when Bartlett seems most staid, with something that seemed oddly vital turning into a grating affectation. Lyrically, it’s a similar issue: Bartlett’s most apt metaphors mirror the flowing contingencies of the music, with two surfaces of ice (a “field” and “streets”), two songs about clouds, and one where a city sinks into a sea. At worst, he retreats into precious and light-hearted affirmations: “if now I love the human race, it’s ‘cause we wrote ‘Amazing Grace.’” For all its fascination with abstraction and the elements, The Acrobat does come off as distinctly urban—the band is from New York City and each member has spent time on the rotating “downtown” scene in one manner or another.
When The Acrobat succeeds, Doveman appears as the rarest of birds: a band led by a songwriter whose songs are loose strings at best, a blueprint to betray. In those moments, Bartlett is both the wind in the sails and a leaf in the wind; the performances and sensitivities of the musicians are as important as the songs themselves, whereas talk of bands on “singer-songwriter” albums usually feels like limp lip service. While Bartlett & Co. don’t always hit the mark, their best moments are tiny revelations, illuminating small radii of night from the belly with a flickering insistence that will likely damn them as much as it will distinguish.