R.E.M. famously whistled past the graveyard when they named their second LP Reckoning. It was an acknowledgement that Murmur was as much an albatross as it was a singular achievement. Expectations were astronomically high, and anything but equal greatness would have seemed like utter failure. The Follow-Up, the album that follows an acclaimed album, is an inherently fraught endeavor for any artist who has achieved a modicum of success. What R.E.M. dreaded was the Sophomore Slump, which is not so much a crash and burn – that can happen any time – but a mild squandering of inflated promise, which takes on more meaning than it should. The Drums’ mirthless and tepid new album Portamento takes the concept of the Sophomore Slump a step further. Their Follow-Up deserves a new term. I suggest the Sophomore Splat.
The Drums’ Splat is not the result of a lack of trying. Calculation permeates Portamento. From the obscure and pointless reference of its title, to its sorta-creepy but ultimately laughable cover, its song titles that shout portent (“Book of Revelation,” “Searching for Heaven,” “In the Cold”), and the cheerlessness of its profound-to-a-middle-schooler lyrics, the Drum boys have worked hard at making Portamento appear serious and meaningful, and have lost track of what made their debut engaging and – horror of horrors! – fun. Portamento is a downer of the worst kind. Not because the Drums are exploring the facets of pain; it’s actually painful to listen to.
The album is marred by a number of fatal flaws that the sunniest of pop melodies can’t rescue. Take “Money,” a tense and wiry cut that features a pretty terrific bass melody that is overshadowed by lead singer Jonathan Pierce’s grating falsetto and amateurish lyric. A germ of a great song is ruined by affectation and limp production. Only Portamento’s first two tracks are strong enough to alleviate the irritation that greets the rest of these songs (of which there are too many). “Book of Revelation” rides in on an irresistible vocal hook (and hand claps), reminding us that the Drums know how to execute a killer surf-pop melody. Same goes for “Days,” which, thankfully, plays down the Drums’ Smiths fetish and delivers some honeyed guitar riffs too.
There actually isn’t a single terrible song on Portamento. Yet, the accumulated momentum of one critically botched song after another makes the whole seem so much worse than its parts. It’s an album that mistakes ill-humor for import, and import for excellence. Sometimes it’s OK to aim low and nail it.