If Death From Above 1979 give off the appearance that they make stripped-down music simply because there are only two people in the band, the size of their sound indicates otherwise. Where popular two-person outfits like The White Stripes and Black Keys distill music down to its most basic building blocks on a quest to capture the pure essence of rock and roll (whatever that means), Death From Above 1979 are a different animal altogether. For starters, they never occupied the same place in the zeitgeist: Though they’ve drifted towards a straight rock style, they first made a splash with a metallic hybrid of punk and dance music that has more in common with experimental post-hardcore groups like The Blood Brothers, These Arms Are Snakes and others who proliferated in the early- to mid-2000s.
And though Death From Above 1979’s instrumentation consists of just vocals, bass, drums and keyboards, they tend to employ those instruments for maximalist effect. Bassist/keyboardist Jesse Keeler is so conscious of tone that even when he and drummer/vocalist Sebastien Grainger simply bash away like a couple of teenagers playing a basement show, the overlapping timbres coming from his amps fill the stereo field with endless contours. In a sense, Keeler plays bass and keys, but he’s also playing his amps (the same ones he’s used since Death From Above 1979 formed in 2001, when he and Grainger basically shrugged and decided not to find other bandmates).
In an interview conducted shortly before the release of their fourth full-length Is 4 Lovers, Keeler and Grainger discussed how their music sounds most at home in small spaces. Indeed, their sound can be so visceral and active, especially in person, that it immediately makes you think of sweating. It’s hard to put into words why that is, but press play on even the most pensive moments on Is 4 Lovers and it’s as if Death From Above 1979 have captured in sound what it feels like to be in the throes of something. On “One + One,” for example, Grainger reflects on new parenthood, offering profound observations like “love is action” and “one plus one makes three—that’s magic” as if he were in the middle of an exercise routine.
Grainger, whose daughter was born as the album was taking its final shape last year, gets more explicit on another verse, singing, “I walk in and the kid starts dancin’ / my heart goes boom-boom-boom.” If you weren’t listening closely enough, you might mistake his high-pitched moans for Prince-like exhortations of sexual desire, the refrain “love is action” like some kind of dance floor come-on—it’s easy to get that impression from the song’s driving, aerobic groove, which sees Grainger re-creating the drumbeat from Devo’s 1981 deep cut “The Super Thing.” But as much as the musical choices on “One + One” convey a lust for life in the Iggy Pop sense, Grainger is getting at something far more sublime in his awe at the way love between two people creates life.
On the band’s previous album, 2017’s Outrage! Is Now, Grainger offered his perspective on bigger-picture issues, such as the role outrage plays in how we communicate. This time, other than the occasional biting quip about, say, walking on Che Guevara’s grave, Grainger mostly sticks within his small sphere of relationships. His great aunt, for example, appears on the cover and gets a song in her honor. But, as domestically oriented as Grainger’s outlook may be these days, one of the more remarkable things about Death From Above 1979 (previously known as DFA1979 and just Death from Above) has been the duo’s ability to maintain their edge, even after breaking up and taking 10 years between their first and second albums.
For an artist whose legend was carved out of youthful aggression, the onset of maturity has, for three albums in a row, brought nothing but benefits. Keeler and Grainger recorded Is 4 Lovers a few feet apart from one another in a confined space over the course of five weeks in 2019, in much the same spirit as their 2004 full-length debut You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine. But, while the songs on Is 4 Lovers certainly have an immediacy about them—precisely the kind of ambience that lends itself to hearing to your own pounding heart—Death From Above 1979 make themselves sound enormous regardless of their affinity for small spaces.
Towards the end of the album, for example, something akin to piano balladry features on the back-to-back tracks “Love Letter” and “Mean Streets.” In terms of the vocal melodies themselves, Grainger doesn’t sound far off from the likes of Ben Folds or Rivers Cuomo, and yet the vibe couldn’t be more different. Grainger’s bass drum remains insistent, not unlike a heart going boom-boom-boom ... and it’s as if Keeler’s swells of keyboard noise, though small and fleeting, might overtake the music at any time. Even when they dial things down considerably, Death From Above 1979’s music buzzes with the same kind of coiled-up power as a slumbering big cat—at any moment, there’s always the threat that it’s going to wake up and start roaring.
Which is exactly what happens on “Mean Streets.” After a single, dreamlike verse with background vocals trailing off like a children’s choir in a high-ceilinged church, Keeler and Grainger erupt into unbridled, fast-paced abrasion that does indeed sound like two teenagers having trouble keeping a song from going off the rails. This time, though, the effect is intentional. Death From Above 1979 continue to show that their seemingly “stripped-down” setup can accommodate musical approaches they hadn’t tried in the past. With Is 4 Lovers, they not only prove that they can stretch without compromising, but also that intimacy and discovery can still be rockin’ AF.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. He also dreams of being a “setlist doctor” to the bands you read about in these pages, and has started making playlists for imaginary shows that your favorite band never actually played. You can read his work, listen to his interviews and playlists at feedbackdef.com, and find him on Twitter.