While Desperate Journalist have evolved in their near decade of existence, they have never sacrificed the catharsis and gripping songwriting that are elevated on their astounding fourth album, ‘Maximum Sorrow!’
Since forming in 2012 as Desperate Journalist, Jo Bevan, Rob Hardy, Simon Drowner, and Caroline Helbert have been creating impressively cathartic music. On both their 2014 self-titled debut and their sophomore album, Grow Up, they have held nothing back with their goth-infused post-punk. Their forward momentum continued as they headed into their 30s. In Search of the Miraculous saw them integrate shoegaze elements that infused brightness into their darker tones. However, they never sacrificed the essence of what makes their music unique: the catharsis and gripping songwriting. Both are showcased on their astounding new album, Maximum Sorrow!
The London band’s fourth album is a testament to women’s courage told through a prism that shifts from Gothic melancholy to feverish post-punk. Opener “Formaldehyde” startles with a languid tone as Bevan’s voice turns angelic over a somber key progression. “When you are gone, who will remember you?” she asks the song’s protagonist. A lingering pain is heard in her delivery, as though she has been left to suffer alone.
From the places she’s lived to the people in her life, misery surrounds the heroine. On the bleak yet roaring dissonance of “Fault” that echoes of a young, hungry U2, Bevan recounts a grimy flat she once occupied. Her residence and her neighborhood were filled with despair she inhaled every day:
“And those teenage hangups are hard to beat
When your closet is piled up with defeat, defeat, defeat, defeat!
It’s no one’s fault
Then it’s everyone’s fault”
The gripping “Personality Girlfriend” sees the band adopts a widescreen approach that echoes Pat Benatar in her prime. It is stark yet enthralling, with heavy rhythms that contrast the searing guitar. All the while Bevan’s approach shifts from alluring to urgent. While the song might come as a plea to be loved, particularly when she repeats, “Please will you love me”, it is much more than that. When her voice goes deadpan, she delivers a biting critique of society and its treatment of women. This world has condemned our hero to a life of solitude.
Even among her close relations, anguish exists. “Fine in the Family” is driven by Hardy’s electrifying guitar and features dynamic ranges from shoegaze to explosive power rock. Those changes capture the disappointment of not living up to parents’ expectations. Or is it the anthem for the black sheep of the family? On the Goth-pop track “The Victim”, Bevan sings of a person who always acted as the casualty. Guided by Drowner’s taut bass she asks, “Another casting call, who will you let inside?” Meanwhile, the stunner “What You’re Scared Of?” is an ode to innocence forever lost. It is the final sunset delivered in crushing fashion as its tones evolve from tranquil to thunderous.
All the songs on Maximum Sorrow! orbit around its centerpiece, “Everything You Wanted”. This epic masterpiece is Desperate Journalist elevating their art to perfection. It is a mesh of The Cure’s Gothic brilliance, Blondie’s exhilarating disco-punk, and Wolf Alice’s anthemic hooks cloaked in a shroud of inescapable darkness. Every word Bevan utters is consuming, as she sings about our collective search for meaning and purpose. At the heart of her tale, though, is artist and performer Kevin Bewersdorf, who went from promoting his Maximum Sorrow brand to erasing his online presence. But he is not alone in realizing “you’ll never be everything you wanted” while trying to fill “the emptiness you were born”.
This endless search for meaning is juxtaposed within and between “Armageddon” and “Utopia”. Helbert’s percussion creates the startling urgency in the track’s opening moment. “Armageddon” then opens up as Hardy’s guitar intermingles with a glimmering synth. An unexpected optimism rings through the track, including in Bevan’s voice as she sings, “Armageddon is coming / So near”. She is counting down the days as the heroine anticipates the start of her second life. Or perhaps she is welcoming the end of days as depicted in the song’s closing moments?
“Utopia” possesses a stark, hymnal quality that is part rebirth and last rites. “Drunk as usual / Did you find something beautiful? / Is this utopia?”, Bevan sings within the synth-driven atmosphere. The suffering has ended, but a new journey has begun. Whether that is here or in another life remains a mystery, but our heroine’s spirit lives on.
It lives on within Jo Bevan (vocals), Rob Hardy (guitar), Simon Drowner (bass) and Caroline Helbert (drums). Like the women to whom it pays tribute, Maximum Sorrow! is a testament to the band’s strength and endless search for relevancy. Desperate Journalist have crafted yet another remarkable album that captivates from start to finish.
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