It’s a special kind of joy to hear a rock album that actually sounds like the band had fun making it. That’s the case with any of Dehd’s albums, but it’s especially true with their fourth and first for Fat Possum, Blue Skies, the follow-up to their 2020 album, Flower of Devotion, which prompted us to name the Chicago rock band The Best of What’s Next. Their new project is proof that their carefree punk-meets-pop style, displayed most fervently on tracks like the lush, hooky “Loner,” wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Dehd are long-haulers when it comes to making absorbing, optimistic indie rock. And after clocking more hours in the studio this time around, the band sound even more assured.
On Blue Skies, those telltale hooks manifest themselves again on nearly every song—there’s even a track called “Bop,” as if the band, made up of Atlanta-born bassist Emily Kempf, drummer Eric McGrady and guitarist Jason Balla—who all share singing duties—knew when writing this record that they were crafting choruses that would burrow into our brains and inspire an infinite loop of sunny-day dance parties. Also replete with catchy lines is lead single “Bad Love,” one of the best songs of the year so far. On its face it’s a simple surf-rock song, but it fits into the album’s larger narrative about chasing joy and abandoning the negative thoughts (or people) that have a tendency to rot our minds. “Run from the bad love,” Kempf sings, proclaiming later, “I got a heart full of redemption,” in her signature growl. “Stars,” guided by Balla, also prioritizes succulent hooks and off-the-wall lyrics, including one line that simply instructs, “dance baby dance.” Dehd, faced with the question of how to exist right now, choose to let feelings of hopelessness escape their minds as melodies. What’s leftover is unabashed hopefulness.
While Dehd are frequently minimalists, their music packs lots of heart. The jubilant “Window,” which somehow muddles the battle cries of Tears For Fears’ “Shout” into Parquet Courts-esque marching drums, is seemingly about surfacing from depression. “There’s a hole in my window / I was wondering how the rain was getting in,” Kempf observes. But then, the album’s namesake expands into view: “Blue skies!” she shouts. Kempf alludes again to the kind of depressive cycle that swallows you up and starts to feel like a baseline on “Waterfall,” remembering, “Being out of touch was a kind of captivity I loved too much.” The punchy “Clear” feeds right into “Hold,” which features only two lines, sung by McGrady: “When I hold you up, you know it’s out of love / When I hold you up, it’s love.” While a short song, it’s still one of the best on the album—further proof that Dehd can do a lot with a little.
“Empty in My Mind” features some more of the best writing on the record. “Over kissing strangers / I want to kiss a friend,” the band sing, fighting the urge to reach for the comfortable and familiar over the promise of something new and risky. “No Difference,” on the other hand, revels in the unexpected: “A million miles left to go / Where we’re going, I don’t know!” When Kempf’s voice joins with Balla’s and McGrady’s, they sound even more confident, especially on lines like, “There are some days I think I’m gonna quit / Then some days I’m glad I never did.”
Whether they’re singing about nothing or everything all at once, Dehd make contagiously fun indie rock, and even when a storm flashes across these Blue Skies, they’re still running around outside, refusing to leave the playground. Even the album’s cover art—perhaps a take on a child’s butterfly sketch—seems to advertise that, despite the songs’ occasional delving into very grown-up issues, this is play manifesting as music. That balance of meaningful storytelling and unbound experimentation are what make Dehd one of the most exciting rock bands working today. Where some artists, faced with our world’s current unraveling, would choose nihilism or anger, Dehd reach for joy again and again.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.