As with many young bands displaying a precociousness well beyond their years, the narrative surrounding Doll Skin has typically been in reference to the legs up they’ve received from those around them. With that in mind, it’s definitely important to acknowledge the boost gained from the attention of Megadeth bassist David Ellefson who produced their debut EP, but 2017’s full-length debut Manic Pixie Dream Girl became indicative of a band with plenty to offer in their own right. Sure, the writing could feel a bit undercooked at times (an unfortunate side effect that afflicts numerous young bands), but breakneck feminist and social justice themes set to a solid punk backdrop earmarked Doll Skin as a band with potentially a lot to offer. And sure enough, a signing to Hopeless Records could potentially herald that becoming a reality, especially with the added platform giving the early singles from Love Is Dead And We Killed Her the recognition that, for this band, has never been to this extent.
But moves like this tend to come with a couple of caveats, and Love Is Dead And We Killed Her feels like a rather clear example of how that can come into play. Rather than the more assertive, fiery fare of their debut, this second album is a ready-for-radio punk album that fits snugly into the remit that bigger labels have typically developed for this sort of thing, in which size and general punk feel is prioritised over anything too hard-hitting and transgressive. And while that sounds like it effectively rips the fangs out of a band for whom that was primary selling point – and that certainly is the case for a lot of this album – Doll Skin have the melodic capacity to songwriting to ensure this isn’t totally dead in the water. It’s definitely not ideal, especially to see how much Doll Skin’s fire has been dimmed, but at least they aren’t caving to the concessions as heavily as some have, for as little consolation as that’s worth.
The changes are definitely noticeable as well, starting with how much more rounded the instrumentation feels in the way its bite has been lessened. No Fear is easily the most questionable example of this coming into play in the vein of high-end pop-rock that leaves some potentially bracing guitar work as virtually an ebbed-back accompaniment, but the general emphasis on scope and mid-pacedness generally feels less exhilarating across the board. To the credit of the band themselves, though, they are capable of working through it; Sydney Dolezal has the sort of strident vocal delivery that’s a natural source of power whenever it’s utilised, and with a bit more snarl in the execution like on Mark My Words and Ink Stains, it’s easier to assign an edge to Doll Skin that puts them above the majority of straight-laced radio-rock bands. If nothing else, Doll Skin have a good command of power that’s needed to give them more presence, and from the perspective of that, Love Is Dead And We Killed Her has a fair bit to enjoy at face value.
But then that comes to the writing, and if there’s one area where it feels as though the easing back of Doll Skin’s harder edges has really hurt them, it’s here. As a positive, the themes are still able to permeate through, like with the assertive, driven personality of the title track and Mark My Words or taking a more personal route into mental health exploration on Outta My Mind and Empty House, but it’s not as if they go down paths that are all the distinctive or even as close to hard-hitting as Doll Skin’s earlier work. At least some of the more egregious juvinility has been greatly eased back, with opener Don’t Cross My Path being the only real example of some cringeworthiness, but when that’s replaced with good intentions that amount to little payoff, it doesn’t feel like a trade that yielded any net positives. That’s not to say there’s nothing incisive here, and when the album’s best moments come in Nasty Man’s examination of powerful men in the entertainment industry using their influence to manipulate women, and the string of deaths from substance abuse that feel more and more common on Your Idols Are Dying, it’s extremely telling that this is where Doll Skin’s most apparent strengths lie, and channelling them into music with a more tangible edge feels much more satisfying in the end. But that can feel like a disappointing minority here, and while the fact that there’s nothing perfunctory or overly throwaway is a good boon to have, very rarely can Doll Skin hit some serious lyrical heights that have equal amounts of punch.
That’s disappointing overall as well, especially given the promise that Doll Skin had so early on, and even if it hasn’t exactly been squandered here, they aren’t living up to what they could fully delivery. That isn’t even because Love Is Dead And We Killed Her is necessarily a bad album either, especially for how straightforward it is, but there could be a lot more here that Doll Skin could deliver, and yet haven’t. It makes for something of an emptier listen than would be ideal, not devoid of enjoyable moments but not having as much resonance within them either. At the end of the day, the results could be a lot worse, but relying on that sort of judgement isn’t the direction that Doll Skin really want to be heading in, particularly at what is still so relatively early in their career.
For fans of: Sum 41, Billy Talent, Rise Against
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Love Is Dead And We Killed Her’ by Doll Skin is released on 28th June on Hopeless Records.