Up Dharma Down’s newly released third album “Capacities” shows us what the band will be showing us along the way.
Third albums are notoriously hard to make.” So said Billy Bragg in a recent interview on the BBC about his LP, “Talking with the Taxman about Poetry,” which — after all — bears on its cover sleeve the inscription: “The Difficult Third Album.” He describes them as being “make-or-break” records. Having spent all the initial spark and creative energy establishing and then reiterating who you are on your debut and its follow-up, “you can’t keep turning out the same record,” he says. At that point, it simply just won’t do. “By the time you get to the third album you’ve got to start showing people where you’re going to go.”
Perhaps this goes some way to account for why it took Up Dharma Down four years to release their third album, “Capacities.” The record doesn’t sound like anything else they’ve ever done before. And although they maintain that the recording process on this record as compared to the previous ones was a lot easier if not more fun, the band has clearly put a lot of thought of where they should be going or, more importantly, what sights they’ll be showing us along the way.
For one, the neon signpost of the ’80s casts an electric glow upon the surfaces of the band’s sound, throwing off shadows that stretch the length of the entire album. It’s there in the incandescent anticipation that propels forward Turn It Well, the insistent aching pulses that punctuate Kulang, the mechanical riff and rhythms that pull down the curtains on the lament of Nightdrops. It’s there in the person of The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan who co-writes as well as sings and plays guitars on Feelings. But most of all, it’s there in Parks which doesn’t require Armi Millare to belt it out as much as it calls for her to sing in empathy with the synthesizers. (That doesn’t make it any less affecting a vocal performance than anything she’s done in the past — in fact, it might be the best thing the band has ever done.) Heck, it might even be in the cover art with a color palette that mirrors the sleeve of New Order’s “Technique.”
But listening to the music makes it apparent though that the intended destination is far more intriguing than the pop charts of the ’80s. A closer ear reveals that the album encompasses a far wider scope of reference points than any single decade has a monopoly to. The track Thinker does owe more to the influence of Stevie Nicks than to, say, Cyndi Lauper or Sheila E. while Luna would find a comfortable spot within the Top 20… in the ’90s. To keep track of it all would make it very “now” too, of course.
Bragg cites the example of artists like The Clash and Bruce Springsteen and how their third albums, “London Calling” and “Born to Run” respectively, came to define them as artists and their place in music history. How they refused to rest on their laurels and continue to play to their galleries. How they evaded becoming parodies of themselves playing cover versions of their own songs. How they risked everything to win on their own terms.
In that regard, “Capacities” does succeed — so much so that you suspect that its true achievement will be only recognized in time. Perhaps not now, but eventually.