Dirty Beaches, or Alex Zhang Hungtai, is accustomed to pulling away. Those who thought Hungtai would release something more normative, sellable, and digestible for his sophomore statement have never known a true physical and psychological nomad. But then, how am I, the reviewer, supposed to speak concisely and effectively about an album that intentionally avoids concision and effectuality? At under 27 minutes, I never felt cheated by the length of Hungtai’s last proper album, Badlands: it created a world in those minutes memorable enough to sustain itself well beyond side B’s locked-groove. But the album’s transience almost seemed like Hungtai’s one concession to his audience: the album was short, but not facile, and the only thing that capped its difficulty was its duration.
Well, Alex Zhang Hungtai is back, and no one said it was going to be easy. Unleashing his only pulled punch, his double LP Drifters/Love is The Devil is long — nearly three times the length of Badlands — and the time consumed is intentionally tedious in order to challenge our modern conventions of communicating ideas. That being said, the album doesn’t deal with time linearly like its cinematic predecessor: the two distinct albums seem more simultaneous than successive — not 75 minutes of passing time, but two perspectives on a collection of moments, each set given 37 minutes to develop. The albums are two vistas from two emotional locales — Drifters being external, Love is The Devil being internal — that reflect the two facets of authentic lonerism: the perception of the stalwart nomad and the emotional derangement of permanent displacement.
“I’ve never been lonely. I’ve been in a room — I’ve felt suicidal. I’ve been depressed. I’ve felt awful — awful beyond all — but I never felt that one other person could enter that room and cure what was bothering me… or that any number of people could enter that room. In other words, loneliness is something I’ve never been bothered with because I’ve always had this terrible itch for solitude. It’s being at a party, or at a stadium full of people cheering for something, that I might feel loneliness. I’ll quote Ibsen, ‘The strongest men are the most alone.’ I’ve never thought, ‘Well, some beautiful blonde will come in here and give me a fuck-job, rub my balls, and I’ll feel good.’ No, that won’t help. You know the typical crowd, ‘Wow, it’s Friday night, what are you going to do? Just sit there?’ Well, yeah. Because there’s nothing out there. It’s stupidity. Stupid people mingling with stupid people. Let them stupidify themselves.”
– Charles Bukowski (a dually cited influence on the album)
Of course, Hungtai would vocalize his statement of purpose for the entire album in a different language: why even attempt to communicate in a direct way when you don’t believe in the verity of undeviating language, when you don’t even believe in dialogue as a successful process? For Hungtai, truth can’t be readily articulated, so therefore circuitousness and obliqueness can only get you closer to expressing your true self: imprecision blurs the message so that the odds of truth being encompassed in the scope of what’s being communicated are better than with targeted catechization. “Écouter moi!/ […] Au revoir mon visage/ c’est juste une image,” or “Listen to me! Say goodbye to my face; it’s just a mask,” Hungtai belts at the height and then the finale of the first LP’s most trying number: he needs his audience to know that Badlands was just a façade and that by loosening his meticulous grip on the nickelodeon bent, he has gotten closer to his voice. Drifters isn’t entirely void of reference points, though, with remnants of Prince spread all throughout “Mirage Hall” and Suicide remaining a prevalent influence on”I Dream In Neon;” however, these allusions are more sporadic and photographic than focused and cinematic, trading era-specific imagery for open-ended emotional poignancy.
“Drifters employs montage in an expressive manner, creating tension in the absence of any psychological characterisation […] and focuses on more mundane, less inherently dramatic events. […] In the absence of a strong cause-and-effect narrative, one of the central themes is the tension between tradition and modernity.”
– Jamie Sexton on John Grierson’s first ‘personal’ silent documentary, Drifters (possible inspiration for the first LP’s title)
The album uses a similar format to David Bowie’s seminal Low (is there something in Berlin’s water?), but extends it to more than double the length, transforming Bowie’s withdrawal-inspired dystopia into the perpetuity of Hungtai’s personal diaspora. The success of this format leans heavily on contrast and juxtaposition on the second LP, and Hungtai’s inclination towards micro-symphonic, modern avant-garde heavily outweighs the corroded yet more traditional pop structures of the first LP. “We drift far, far from here,” Hungtai croons as his last vocal contribution on the album in “Like the Ocean We Part,” and in this, he seems to be suggesting why this contrast is congruous with the album’s overarching message: one’s surface self will always juxtapose one’s true, buried self, and to attempt to communicate with one’s buried self across this divide by way of language is utterly futile. Even more so, Hungtai implies that communicating your genuine, fated self at all through language is impossible, and at least partially proves this true through lyric-less yet devastating songs like “Love is The Devil” and “I Don’t Know How to Find My Way Back To You.” The concept of finding one’s way back is integral to the album, for the lasting effects of diaspora aren’t the result of one’s removal from their homeland, but of one’s removal from their recessed and permanent self — and then their being gated from that self.
“If there are junk yards in hell, love is the dog that guards the gates.”
– from Love is a Dog from Hell by Charles Bukowski (probable inspiration for the second LP’s title)
For Hungtai, love and hell, art and pain, and garbage and inspiration make for closer pairings than his material and sonic selves. I was lucky enough to see Dirty Beaches perform twice in one weekend in Toronto a couple years ago, once on a vast, sunlit stage in Dundas Square and then late at night in the dingy cavern of Lee’s Palace. The day-lighted performance was enjoyable enough, but it was the performance in the dimly lit and intimate venue — where I could see the pain on his face, his propensity for constant movement, the downcast glares, his aura of dire, solemn intent — that has been burned into my memory and has remained one of my favorite performances in any medium. With that contrast in mind, I can’t help but feel that the album’s spring release was poorly timed: fall is the season of the vagabond, and I’m certain that Drifters/Love is The Devil would make a better soundtrack to a lonely walk with the sole solace a warm sweater than a windows-down drive on a warm, sunny day. But for those with autumn coursing through their veins, they’d do well to assuage their summer by keeping Dirty Beaches’ Drifters/Love is The Devil coursing through their headphones.