That’s it; end of review. Seriously, go let the record do itself justice. Everything from here on out is simply personal conjecture and analysis. There is no album score. Go listen to it.
(Additional note: if you’re one of those people who thinks La Dispute are trash and “fake hardcore” or whatever, this record won’t change your mind. Have a nice life… I guess.)
Within the alternative music scene, there are few bands who can put out a record that is equally engaging to both listen to and to read as La Dispute. Dreyer’s lyrical voice is indisputably one of the scene’s best and a tour de force to read standalone, coming off somewhere between William Faulkner and Hunter S. Thompson. But it’s his formidable vocal dynamism, coupled with fantastic arrangements and performances by the rest of the band that fundamentally sell each narrative they weave as more than just a sum of parts.
Upon reading this, it wouldn’t come as surprise to anybody that I hold a deeply woven love for La Dispute. They were the first band I ever saw live, and one of the first hardcore/adjacent bands I ever got into. For myself, a new release is a really exciting prospect. As such, my response to this record is very much intertwined with my past experience of them, and whilst I can say without a doubt that it is a worthy follow up, it’s something that I find impossible to contextualise outside of the perspective of someone who’s grown up with this musical voice alongside them.
This aside, on to the album.
Panorama is the work of musical reportage; a post-hardcore rendition of a David Hockney piece, stitching songs as landscapes with lyrics that detail a rich and tragic history. The album captures real places, real deaths; a real journey (or a reproduction of many journeys, in the way that memory makes repeated experiences coalesce into one).
This is a road trip album, chronicling an actual expedition lyricist and vocalist Jordan Dreyer used to embark on with his partner in their home state of Michigan. The pitstops along the way are all in some form responses to real deaths that have occurred along this expedition and are somewhat representative of emotional states and events in a life.
But, as with all La Dispute’s work, in addition to being high-concept, it’s fundamentally a human drama, with this being one of few to actually contain a non-fictional structure. In that respect, this isn’t just a journey album, it’s about the experience of a journey shared with an intimate partner. It’s a portrait of a relationship rendered in its ever-changing surroundings.
I will refrain from discussing this relationship in detail here, partly because I suspect it’s a real one, but also due to the fact that Dreyer has gone on record as saying he thinks that having meaning ascribed to a work of art from an authorial perspective is an inherently reductive concept, and that he explicitly writes with the intention of leaving the meaning up to audience interpretation.
With this in mind, I would strongly suggest you go and listen to the album now, if you haven’t already. What follows is simply one perspective.
THE ALBUM, END TO END:
The album’s opener, Rose Quartz, is a short instrumental track, under a minute of synth/guitar tone and ambience — sounding closer to the introductory track for Van Halen’s 1984 than previous openers a Departure or fan-favourite, Such Small Hands.
It’s a brief bit of pink noise that’s designed to evoke the sort of healing properties Rose Quartz is said to have had in the philosophy of Feng Shue, introducing us to the idea of minerals and their metaphoric associations, which are to become a recurring motif through our journey.
Album openers codify the listeners’ expectations of the record to come, and Rose Quartz feels startlingly left-field.
Which is precisely what makes the gapless transition into Fulton Street such a jarring experience. To put it simply, Fulton Street is everything you’ve come to expect from a La Dispute track; harsh and emotive, a sprawling, sometimes spacey progression that compliments the shouted vocal delivery to a tee without ever feeling confined to it. The lyrics stand on their own as short fictions or poems in the linear notes and yet, when played over the track, they catch beneath your skin — little twinges at refrains — “the cities grow weeds” — “I never put flowers by the street”, that mimic the writing style of Palahniuk.
The record continues. Fulton Street II is a winter themed crescendo.
It’s at this point, on the Rhodonite and Grief, that the album’s tenuous grasp to its high concept conceit becomes untethered. Something the band have spoken about previously in relation to death-of-the-author readings of their work, is that their intention in writing concept albums is to write songs that appeal to different sorts of listeners. Concept albums, they feel, are often too prescriptive to listeners who don’t want to listen front-to-back in the way the vanilla track-list intends.
I have not listened to Panorama on a long drive yet. I’m learning to drive with my grandad. He does not like hardcore.
Back to the Rhodonite and Grief. Rather than the road trip narrative, what we get instead is a voyage through time, through unchanging rooms of a house, as a relationship unfolds. The domestic scenes of gradual recovery from some unnamed trauma.
These fragments of internal conflict run parallel to the memory, drawing in earnest the impact of what this all means. The figure of a loved one illuminated in bed by a distant lightning strike in a storm, sleepless nights, detachment, healing crystals under mattresses, years spent in the same place, in refuge of dreams. Images of a life. Changes in status quo.
Musically, Rhodonite errs more on the side of jazz – particularly in the drums and smooth guitar lines, as well as the inclusion of brass – than hardcore, closer to the sound of Hear, Here, the band’s stellar poetry/music anthology series, which I can’t recommend enough.
This illustrates maybe one of the record’s (and the band’s) strongest suits. Each instrument receives focal attention in the arrangement of the songs; Vander Lugt’s drumming has the same dynamic quality of Dreyer’s voice, capturing the contrast in energy throughout the album, though the aforementioned track perhaps is the one that gives him most focus. Northern Michigan is lead by Vass’ bass, which complements the vocals fantastically, with The View From Our Bedroom Window and Footsteps at the Pond both driven by their respective guitar lines, the harmonics in the latter feeling almost new wave. Together this creates a record that feels dynamically alive, and it’s basically just really fucking good okay, so you should go listen to it.
Anxiety Panorama is one of the more single-friend on the record, with a chorus that hits a Hot Water Music style of emo/alt-rock. The View From Our Bedroom Window is a personal highlight, with a gripping guitar line that rivals the vocals without overshadowing them. It’s resonance and melody holds the piece together in a way that almost reminds me of the sensibilities of The Killers. One of the strongest compositional choices however, is when this lead line breaks, and we’re hit with a some bending flanger chords that have this eerie, soft beauty.
It ignites a flame within me, and it makes me very happy.
Footsteps at the Pond has become a personal anthem for me. In addition to being perhaps the most musically cathartic, it says a lot of things I need to say or hear from certain people in my life right now. It’s a monologue to a former friend. It’s a reconciliation with the wants and needs between two people who have grown fundamentally incompatible.
There You Are (Hiding Place) has a classically La Dispute feel. It’s also a candidate for some of Dreyer’s most incisive writing on the album: “I was afraid to find an older me alive in you”, he sings. I feel this intimately in so many ways.
His use of lyrical structure is also worthy of recognition — when a sequence finishes on what would usually be a refrain, in its subsequent iteration, he changes the wording whilst retaining the same thematic meaning, “in the same place for days” becoming “while the days ran away”, breathing life into the vocals in a way that makes them feel almost unrehearsed.
The album concludes with the sprawling You, Ascendant. Its bending, mutable bass/guitar harmonies meander like a trail that ends in the discovery of a body, evoking both the feeling of endless desert dunes and the hillside roads Dreyer’s soft-spoken words allude to.
Here, we’re returning to that same fateful journey, but now only through the lens of dreams, omniscient, and yet painfully divorced from the events that have unfolded. Dreyer’s words are captivating, hypnotic, poetic; the progressive instrumental structure is a plodding, permanent build in speculation of our own mortality.
And with that, the curtains fall and the journey ends.
Artistry aside, I think one of the fundamental attractions that bring people to La Dispute and allows them to resonate so profoundly to the stories they tell, is a near-pathological, almost schizophrenic impulse to be drawn to tragedy. Or, perhaps, a tragic human inability to divorce oneself from grief.
What’s so gratifying about listening to Panorama is how the album forces us to confront the toll this pathology has on a life, not just emotionally but also in our relationships with other people. In its haunting, dare I say panoramic, unforgettable finale, You Ascendant, Dreyer traces the same lyrical path of Wildlife’s closing track, You and I in Unison — but whereas in Wildlife he was hiding behind a fictive lens, Panorama feels transgressive in that his lamentations on living a life consumed by the fear of death is very much a personal declaration.
“How long do I have to fix this? Years lost too indifferent and afraid (…) and where does the shame go now if never away? No one to blame but me. I wanted everything. How’d I fail so badly?”
Whereas Unison feels like an abridged thesis statement for the themes of Wildlife, Ascendant is a mourning for half a life lived wrong, and a desperate, painful plea for change, alluding little to the rest of the album in full and instead treated as a bookending recall of Fulton Street. Echoed in the harrowing cry of “I will be everything you need” before the vocals slip away, the arrangement follows a path of muted progression and bending strings until it descends into silence. Like a life. Like a lifetime.