ALBUM REVIEW: Iceage, Seek Shelter
My favorite contemporary rock albums, like Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, express the human condition as a multi-faceted beast full of issues. A song like “Kyoto” was about how familial problems can interrupt life even when you’re across the Earth, even when you don’t particularly care for the family member. Not only that, but the song showed that Phoebe didn’t just see her dad as a deadbeat, addict and abuser, he was also the guy that taught her how to drive and raised her to a degree. Iceage has never struck me as a band that had a great grasp on songwriting or lyricism particularly. The Danish to English language barrier certainly blocked that in some ways. While I’ve enjoyed some of their tracks, especially “The Lord’s Favorite” from 2014, I’ve always found something kind of off-putting about how disjointed their style is. The vocals were so yelping and breathy, often not locking into the groove of the music. When I’m off-put by the sound of a record, it makes me less inclined to really dig into the purpose and lyrical content of particular tracks, and this was the common cycle with this band that I seemed to be forever trapped in. While I knew their music was well made and worthy of praise, I never liked much of it, truthfully.
Emotionally potency is diluted by punkish tendencies and immaturities, and sometimes all it takes is a bit of experience and world-weariness to get there. I see the trajectory of Iceage to be eerily similar to that of Iggy Pop, who’s music I do happen to like quite a bit. With The Stooges, on tracks like “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, the raw energy was fueled by nihilism, all the while Iggy and his band were injecting themselves with so much heroin that the walls of their apartment were red with blood splatters. As he matured and ventured into solo work on albums like The Idiot, he took that same immaturity but refined it to be more personal and self-aware. Iceage went from unflinching punks on their first two albums to bluesy punks on Plowing Into The Field of Love to making horn rock and post-punk on Beyondless, all while progressively sharpening their skills like a blade. The most recent Iggy Pop song I can remember is his collaboration with Oneohtrix Point Never for the Good Time OST, “The Pure and The Damned”. On that track, he is beyond burned out, he can barely muster up enough energy to do some spoken word about “untwisting and untangling these strings I'm in...to lead a pure life”. If Iceage keeps going down this path, they will eventually end up in full dejection mode, but I think they’ve caught themselves just before that point.
All that’s to say, this is without a doubt the best Iceage album. They have found a middle ground between Bridgers’ attention to detail and Iggy Pop’s loss of hope in all mankind. What results is a series of incredibly produced (by Sonic Boom) rock tracks that are instrumentally rich and full of contradictions. The singles leading up to this album certainly showed a big change, but it was hard to parse exactly what they were going for due to the lack of genre cohesion amongst them. “The Holding Hand”, which serves as the album’s closer, was a slow-moving cocktail of buoyant percussion, echoed vocals, pianos and chaotic chimes; an odd choice for a first single to say the least. In context, it makes sense as a wrap up of everything that precedes it. “Vendetta” has a deceptively simple, hypnotic blues rock instrumental, a deep dive into the lyrical content reveals a greatly improved songwriting prowess. First, in the form of world building (“Every trickster knows there's an onslaught/And every city's flooded with cocaine”) then with a display of paranoid and desperate revenge (“Cock the hammer, tuck it in/We keep it close, we keep with kin/Vendetta”). It’s not clear whether or not the revenge is personal, there are illusions to assassination for hire, but the track gives me just enough to keep me engaged and coming back for multiple listens.
The two singles released just before the release of this album, “Shelter Song” and “Gold City”, really began to start to put the album into context for me, and made me really excited to listen. The former, which works as the album’s opener, is a flooring piece of British rock a la Oasis. The track opens with violins and guitar passages that are slow but purposefully in their movement, very similar to something like “Champagne Supernova”. Lyrically, the track is about trying to make sense in an upside down world where, as the powerhouse Gospel Collective-backed hook goes “they kick you when you’re up, they knock you when you’re down”. This is the first of many incredible choruses on this project, the band has this keen sense of how to build up to a chorus emotionally, tease us with it, then beat us down with this hopeless lyrical content, and then bring back the chorus at the tail end as a saving boon in a world shrouded in darkness. By the time the chorus comes back, I don’t know whether to cry out of giving up or out of a communal salvation, either way, the drum fills and steady guitars keep me entranced. The restrained “Singing in the Rain”-but-rock ballad “Drink Rain” similarly traps me with its patient verses filled with lounge-pianos (that just WORK) about being too impure to even have water and then kicks my teeth in with the reprise of the chorus.
“Gold City”, the single I mentioned before, follows this one up with more ruminations on the good-bad dichotomy of love. This time, lead singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt is having attachment issues in a love that he knows will violently fail, “There's a detonation waiting to happen/Combusted to a tranquil affection set aflame/Now I don't know where I would be without you”. The instrumental throws it past Brit-pop directly to source, The Rolling Stones. The bluesy rock and slack-jawed realism reminds me so much of “Heart of Stone”, a song similarly about emotional fragility and false security in a relationship. “Love Kills Slowly” is roughly about the same things, romance is withering rather than immediately volatile. This is the most aged the band has ever sounded, and they’ve done so like fine wine. Where I previously would’ve found Rønnenfelt’s vocals to be goofy or grating, on this song they possess a power that no other rock singer working today has. This is literally post-punk, not genre wise but in attitude, he’s given up the fight and has just accepted how futile trying to rage is, death subsumes all and there is a newfound existential dread that makes his vocal work just make more sense in this context.
When the band attempts to speed and solo their way out of the dread, it works out well too. It feels like manic episodes within this bombed out landscape they have painted for themselves. “High & Hurt” is another song whose title precedes it, they’re pissed off but are playing on with the help of drugs to forget the pain for a few minutes. As a result, the track sounds like someone reluctantly being anthemic, like he knows that he has to be catchy but he’s not happy about it. The standard drums, bongos and Gang of Four guitars in the second leg of the track give it an additional punch, Iceage is pulling out all the stops for one last ride, burning all the fuel reserves before falling back into the shadows for a few tracks until they come back with a bite again on “Dear Saint Cecilia”, which is not quite as powerful. It’s really peculiar, sounding like a really sunny old Dinosaur Jr. song. I enjoy the juxtapositions of fine European culture (Venetia, red wine, etc.) with dirt bag imagery, I also really fuck with how jammy the band gets on this one, definitely one of the more fun cuts in the bunch.
This was a surprising listen from start to finish. A band which I formerly had no interest in has dropped one of my favorite albums of the year and of the decade so far. Have they done stuff like this before? Longtime fans and critics might argue that, but I would completely disagree and say that this band has never sounded this organized before. Yes, they get crazy from time to time, and the vocals are still a wild card, but Rønnenfelt finally sounds like he’s mastered his particular perspective as a singer and songwriter. The lyrical content is concise, the themes are consistent and he’s the frontman of a band that is playing to his strengths, not the other way around. This is the most personal and depressed this band has ever sounded, they’ve effectively channeled their influences while sounding like they are ready to influence others. Experience looks good on them, they’re daring but not at the risk of losing the script.