Each of Extra Life’s three albums have come across as closely-guarded confessions. Not the kind a killer or an adulterer makes in exchange for a clear conscience, but those of the shamed victim, the one cursed to wonder whether they’d done something to provoke the mistreatment they’ve received. Secular Works, the band’s debut, explored such notions as they present to the outside world. It discussed with clear omniscience pathological and social maladies like bleeding and blackmail, allowing the listener to observe the pain and shame of its narrator. Meanwhile, 2010’s Made Flesh, as its title suggests, dealt with lust and the betrayal one feels as they journey from innocence into a world of corporeal desire.
Further advancing this study, this year’s Dream Seeds is Freudian in its methodical examination of childhood shame. Here, the narrative is revealed more gradually, as if being patiently coaxed. It takes place neatly in the mind of a young person, one perceptive enough to anticipate the pain they will cause others as trauma festers. We find that secrets have been embedded deeper than they ever have before, and have more alarmingly manifested themselves. The world of Dream Seeds contains beasts that lurk through both waking thoughts and dreams, cursing their beholder and those closest.
As with all of Extra Life’s recordings, awkward meter, panging instrumentation, and Charlie Looker’s altar-boy vocals make the album a wrenching affair. A child’s voice, devoid of emotion, opens the album with the bleak utterance, “No dreams tonight.” Minutes later he adds, “Tonight I’m shut down/ And I don’t want to see those parts of me.” As shuddering as it seems, the metallic catharsis of Extra Life’s two previous albums is replaced here with meditative prophecy. In the rueful cries and sweet wallow of “Little One,” Looker sings, “I’ve never made love/ Someday someone like me will hurt you/ That’s what I’m afraid of.” And more alarmingly on “Ten Year Teardrop,” “I saw myself in 20 years/ I saw the beast that I met in here.”
Musically, Dream Seeds crosses the fine line between brutal chamber (a genre it in part defined) and art rock. Its adoption of more meditative tones and off-kilter melody as opposed to metallic ones favors a greater comparison to King Crimson’s Red than anything in ZS’ discography.
For fans of visceral pop music who have perhaps pondered items like the origin of Leonard Cohen’s dark lust or Greg Dulli’s love-tainted vengeance, albums like Dream Seeds only deepen the mystery. Here, monsters lurk within innate and seemingly innocent thoughts and desires. It’s a child prophesying a lifetime of heartbreak and mistreatment paid forward. It’s corrupted dreams and misplaced vows of celibacy. The subtle lines that sketch this world, shaped by both fear and shame, connect to form one of the more gripping albums you’ll hear this year.