Gang of Losers
t's standard after an album as sprawling as the Dears' 2003 effort No Cities Left to retreat a little, to have your next effort be smaller and simpler and maybe even a bit more commercial. That being said, the Montreal band got where they are by dint of excess. Songs like “There Is No Such Thing as Love” and “Pinned Together, Falling Apart” existed primarily as vehicles for Murray Lightburn's fabulous howl. Poppier tracks like “Lost in the Plot” may be responsible for much of their initial exposure, but the Dears' more fraught side has always made up the meat of their albums.
In that respect, Gang of Losers is no different. The most striking moment arrives late, during “The Ballad of Humankindness.” After a few minutes of pleasurable puttering around, Lightburn lets it rip: “And I can't believe the vast amount of people living on the streets! AND I CAN'T BELIEVE I WAS ALMOST ONE OF THEM, AND I ALMOST DIED! And I can't believe I haven't lent a hand, that I'm just standing here! Well I'm gonna change I'm gonna change I'm gonna change I'm gonna change I'm gonna change I'm gonna change I'm gonna change I'm gonna change I'm gonna change!” After the relative restraint of the previous nine tracks it's an arresting moment, and one of the album's best.
But even there the biggest change in the Dears' music is clear: It used to be that Lightburn would sing what sounded like intensely personal songs, full of references we were not—and shouldn’t expect to be—privy to. Which isn’t to say that the band never engaged with the wider world (e.g. the pre-No Cities Left EP Protest). But the group’s albums have always turned inward and here, for the first time, Lightburn writes more generally and expansively, tackling various forms of ostracism. Of course, instead of pining by himself, he's united with his wife, keyboardist Natalia Yanchak—and the rest of his band—against the world (“You and I Are a Gang of Losers”), deadpanning about racism (“Whites Only Party”), social control (“Fear Made the World Go 'Round”), even the draft (“Death or Life We Want You”). But as you can see from the titles, occasionally his new approach leads to a slightly off-putting obviousness.
Luckily the rest of the Dears back him up with the catchiest and tightest tunes of the band's career. Their fusion of 80s synths, arty flourishes, and a Britpop base makes more sense as modern pop music than ever, and Gang of Losers cuts back on the temporal excess of the last record, containing the same number of tracks in a trim 48 minutes (as opposed to 66). Even so, the group could have lost even more: the two tracks that come after “The Ballad of Humankindness” feel more than a bit anticlimactic.
It may be telling that the best tracks are more vague than their brethren. “There Goes My Outfit” boasts a couple of louche bon mots anyone this side of Morrissey would kill for (“being born is really such a chore”), but after the expansive grace of the first half the band and Lightburn dig in, and the real gut-punch moment of the song comes as Lightburn slips into a growl: “there goes, there goes, there GOES my outfit.” What's going on here isn't exactly clear, but it sounds fantastic, and it follows hard on the heels of “Hate Then Love,” stormy and similarly aloof; the two combined are the best Gang of Losers has to offer.
So those that just wanted to hear another “Jazz Waltz No. 3 in B-Flat” are doomed to disappointment and those who feasted on the breakup-as-apocalypse imagery of No Cities Left don't have as much to mull over. The Dears are now less idiosyncratic but have successfully made the kind of straightforwardly satisfying album that you'd expect from a band on their second decade. If they've moved away slightly from what used to make them special, it happens to most acts, and results are hard to quibble with.