If there’s one band who’ve shown just how drastically the irrepressible good will of modern indie-rock can be squandered, it would be Wallows, but Remo Drive would come a close second. Their debut Greatest Hits was fine enough, but the critical acclaim it seemed to pick up from across the map felt like the arrival of something pretty special within modern indie and emo, something that would be broken down to an almost unrecognisable level on last year’s Natural, Everyday Degradation, their first effort for Epitaph that saw even their staunchest of defenders struggle to get behind it. That sort of critical face-turn is decidedly uncommon nowadays, especially for a band as primed for the top as Remo Drive were, so to see A Portrait Of An Ugly Man come as a follow-up just over a year later isn’t surprising in the slightest. Reputation repair is bound to be on the forefront of the minds of everyone involved, and while one could question how thoroughly that could be achieved on an album with such a rapid turnaround time, there’s clearly self-awareness there that’s easy to appreciate. If nothing else, Remo Drive seem to be wanting to put the mistakes of their sophomore album to bed, and you can’t really fault them too much for that.
What isn’t as immediately commendable is having that run in tandem with what’s almost a complete reinvention of sound; it gives off a flightiness that, considering their last album felt as undercooked as it did, underscores a real lack of direction that’s afflicting Remo Drive. That’s certainly the impression A Portrait Of An Ugly Man gives off, which might be an improvement over Natural, Everyday Degradation overall, but still feels decidedly mid-level in what it’s offering. It’s not as compelling or energetic as Remo Drive could be in their earlier days, nor does it feel all that bold as an evolution; it simply hangs around as another listenable but ultimately ineffective listen, something that’s becoming disappointingly commonplace for Remo Drive at this stage.
At least it can be said with greater certainty that A Portrait… represents the forward movement in Remo Drive’s artistic progression that its predecessor refused to apply, with any traces of emo sanded back massively for what’s a purer indie-rock experience. That in itself is fine, particularly with regards to the scrappiness that the band are capable at pulling off, but painting it with dustier tones apparently drawing inspiration from Westerns and Queens Of The Stone Age is where the first main problem arises, namely in that they don’t do enough with it. Leaning fully into that direction would’ve made for something cool and broody that would’ve helped Remo Drive stand out, but what we get is a post-Strokes indie-rock sound that’s doused in a sepia filter and shorn of the drive needed to make that work. There are glimpses offered of what it optimally could’ve been, like the windswept ruggedness of If I’ve Ever Looked Too Deep In Thought and The Night I Kidnapped Remo Drive, or – to a lesser extent – the dalliances with classic rock tone on True Romance Lives, but there’s precious little that’s all that gripping or engages with its apparent source material beyond superficial tone. The prevalence of sinuous basslines is always going to be good, but they’re all that stand out on The Ugly Man Sings or Ode To Joy 2 which come across as surprisingly low-energy and disaffected, doing just enough to co-opt the necessary aesthetic without eking out whatever strengths it could bring to the overall sound. It makes A Portrait… feel surprisingly drained and joyless overall, and when Erik Paulson’s vocals have a similarly flat and understated tone to them, it turns a potentially interesting pivot into one that just feels like a chore to withstand.
Quite why they’ve opted to do this is a total mystery, given it does seem like they’ve made an effort beneath the surface, if nowhere else. A Portrait… definitely feels more willing to look beyond the basics in its writing compared to what came before, likely a result that the influence of more singer-songwriters had on its creation, and even if jabs towards the modern music industry and overzealous fan culture can feel a bit rote on Star Worship and The Night I Kidnapped Remo Drive, there’s at least a few curious or offbeat word choices that do create some distinct lyrical touchstones, like the references to The Dark Crystal on Star Worship, or True Romance Lives’ line “Honey, if you wanna make me crumble at your touch / You’ll have to dress up like an apple and take me to the Genius Bar” which is easily the standout image of the entire album. And yet, it’s really only individual moments that do anything, again a result of the lack of oomph that this album has. Hooks aren’t all that prevalent and generally feel muted when they are here, and for a band whose primary successes in the past have come from that field almost entirely, it leaves A Portrait… feeling even more disconnected from what Remo Drive actually have to offer. They aren’t being all that interesting or dynamic here, and the negative impact it has can’t be overstated.
But again, making the effort to expand themselves and actually do something does fall in their favour, and it sets A Portrait… up a bit higher, if only on good will alone. But for as underwhelming and bland as it can be overall, that doesn’t account for much, especially since Remo Drive are still far away from their best at pretty much every angle. It all makes for yet another album that’s likely to forgotten in record time, even if the vague memory of making an attempt to step into something new might prevail for a little while longer. Even so, this isn’t all that good, and only serves as another disappointing checkpoint in the fall from grace that’s quickly becoming Remo Drive’s entire career.
For fans of: The Strokes, Wallows, McCafferty
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘A Portrait Of An Ugly Man’ by Remo Drive is released on 26th June on Epitaph Records.