Given both what the Dirty Heads are and what they have been in the past, the conversation around them should be a lot more interesting that it is. They might’ve started out as a laidback reggae act who made the transition to splitting the difference between pop-rap and alt-pop, all while accruing a shockingly sizable fanbase, but last year’s self-titled album was ultimately formless and forgettable despite being as diverse as it was. But for as much of an acquired taste as all this is, the band’s creative juices are clearly flowing given this follow-up only a year later, this time roping in a wide range of collaborators and promising to be even more sonically wide-reaching than their previous effort.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the worst after those statements from a band who’ve made it clear that nothing is off limits even if they can’t reasonably back it up musically, but Swim Team is a small step in the right direction. Any sort of cohesion at all is still too much to ask and the Dirty Heads’ Frankensteining sonic pieces together is as inelegant as ever, but with the benefit of a few better songs, this is a passable album, if not quite a good one just yet. Still, there’s an improvement in songcraft here (albeit a spotty one) that shouldn’t go ignored; Staloney does slick, cool pop-rap well thanks to its steady, extremely tight bassline; Vacation is definitely solid as a more conventional reggae throwback; and even for as polished and well-groomed as it is, the big stadium-pop of Celebrate does have some appeal and wouldn’t be out of the question as some sort of crossover given the right push. Swim Team also has a skilled vocal ensemble at its disposal as well, with both Jared Watson and Dustin Bushnell showing some surprisingly impressive flows that can get as corny as they come, but there’s complexity there that’s given room to shine on tracks like Staloney and Mad At It.
But, as is the case with everything tied to the Dirty Heads, none of this has any real consistency going forward, and for as much commendation as the band deserve for even attempting to cram so much material into a relatively lean package, it inevitably leaks out into a hopelessly clumsy listen. What’s worse is when certain tracks become such a misshapen clash of genre that they’re virtually unmanageable, like the dubstep drops breaking through the piano-driven indie-pop of West Coast, or High Tea, with a delicate folky hook that’s sloughed off for slabs of bass that aren’t even attempted to be blended in. It makes for an album that’s bittier than it really should be if it wants to work in any conceivable manner, but with what the Dirty Heads are trying to do here, it’s hardly a shock that it is.
In truth, it’s virtually impossible to find any unbroken through-line that runs from beginning to end. The closest runs in the rather nebulous theme of success that’s somewhat embedded within, and at least before it’s largely dropped for ill-advised relationship songs like God Damn Liar and the rather embarrassing Lonely For Me, there is some stock in determining that it works. It’s more a collection of feelings than an outright arc or narrative – Vacation has Watson outlining how much he loves his life now he has this success, and Celebrate is played as a letter to the band’s families back home, saying how they’ll celebrate their success when they return from tour – but there’s a distinct feeling of humbleness that’s definitely endearing. The rather schmaltzy presentation of Celebrate backs a band who are clearly thankful for what they’ve achieved, and for as milquetoast and rather plain as So Glad You Made It is, it fits the vibe of still having time to just hang out with friends and not letting the rockstar lifestyle take hold. Even when there is more posturing bragging on Staloney, it’s played with a much more jocular tone that clearly isn’t meant to be taken seriously.
At the very least, it shows that there’s at least some knowledge of a consistent theme within the Dirty Heads’ process, and that’s at least a start. On the other side of the coin though, they still manage to botch it up in what is arguably the most important area, and it leaves Swim Team as an album crying out some real management, or at least some pruning to work out what it’s actually good at. The Dirty Heads aren’t a bad band – there’s enough moments and turns on here to prove that they have a good album in them – but there’s such a lack of general focus that crucially needs to replace the mindset of “do anything and hope it’ll work”. Still, they’re heading the right way; what they’ve got here mightn’t be entirely good, but it’s very possible that it could pave the way for something that is.
For fans of: Itch, Twenty One Pilots, Matisyahu
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Swim Team’ by Dirty Heads is released on 13th October on Five Seven Music.