Dirty Beaches and the Power of Drifting

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In a way, all professional musicians are drifters. They travel from city to city courtesy of a van or bus with very few of their personal items in tow; an instrument, a bag of clothes, maybe a money pouch for merch sales. All of them find sanctuary in hotel rooms, on couches, or other people’s floors before heading to the next town. But even among musicians, there are very few who have actually lived the life of an honest-to-God drifter. Alex Zhang Hungtai, who performs as Dirty Beaches, has made the drifter’s life such a profound theme in his music that he could probably teach other musicians the Hobo Code between tours.

Hungtai’s breakout record, 2011′s Badlands, was more than just a great record, it was an aesthetic revelation. Take its cover: A grainy, black-and-white side-profile shot of Hungtai — sporting a white t-shirt and his hair slicked back greaser-style — puffing a split-sided cloud of smoke. Even if you hadn’t heard a second of Badlands. It’s a striking image, good enough to be a still from a Jim Jarmusch film or a page from Danny Lyon’s The Bikeriders.

The album itself — a spate of lo-fi greaser-punk and haunting balladry (songs had names like “Speedway King” and “A Hundred Highways”) cemented his American drifter persona. Hungtai has noted in various publications (including but not limited to his first Pitchfork interview) that he’s a nomad, coming of age in a variety of places and taking the experiences to create a body of work that feels truly cosmopolitan.

A double-album of sorts, with two separate titles fused together for continuity, Drifters/Love is the Devil is Hungtai ditching the worn leather jacket in favor of a less focused musical style that more accurately resembles his travails around the globe. Listening to the album evokes dusty neon lights, cycling down busy market streets lit with painted lanterns, and occasionally, skeevy clubs where people are having sex right outside of the champagne room. If Badlands was “The Wanderer,” Drifters/Love is the Devil is Tokyo Drifter.

The same balmy, bankrupt fidelity is there, but his nostalgic, overtly American approach is replaced by drum machines, thumping 808s, glowing synths, and occasionally, the downcast, avant-garde feel of Berlin’s storied recording history, from Bowie to Liars. Hungtai’s Alan Vega howl has always been in the mix, but there are songs here that actually sound like Vega’s eternally influential Suicide, a very American band with European signifiers. Each of the new albums have a more exploratory conceit, the feel of a journey. On both, but much more so on Love is the Devil, Hungtai creates classical and ambient dispatches, the pacing of which summon the feeling of being adrift — not necessarily from the world, but the people he shares it with. “Alone at the Danube River” sounds like a spiritual cousin to Radiohead’s “Treefingers,” but the former is more of a meditation than an interlude. It comes across as something to be listened to in the latest of late-night hours while walking around the streets of a big city so empty, even the homeless population seems to have taken a night off.

Just as Badlands was concise in its construction, Drifters/Love is the Devil meanders about, improvising its pathways to end up somewhere completely different. Even danceable tracks like the first wave techno of “Mirage Hall” end up lost in its own sprawl, purveying many moods (and finding Hungtai screaming in Spanish) in its nine minutes and 48 seconds. But here, getting lost isn’t an activity that suggests confusion or a wrong turn, it becomes more of a liberating act.

The Love is the Devil side of the set is more vulnerable in its wayfaring, even to the point where its creator wrote about crying and punching himself in the face after recording the title track. There’s a common misconception about avant-garde instrumental music, that it’s music more suited for intellectualizing than emoting, but there’s a prevalent sense of heartbreak and loneliness hovering over Love is the Devil.

Why do drifters drift? It could be the healing powers of being out in the world by themselves, or it could be an antidote for the desolation of not having a place to call home. Whatever the case, it’s a very interesting facet of culture to have transient beings hanging around the margins of culture. As Badlands proved and Drifters/Love is the Devil solidified, Alex Zhang Hungtai is an artist who doesn’t care about going anywhere except wherever he wants.

Drifters/Love is the Devil is out now on Zoo Music.

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