Despite apparently dissolving their group in May of last year, Toronto-based noise-pop duo Devi McCallion and Ada Rook have seemingly returned from their brief hiatus, presenting listeners with the Valentine’s Day gift of their fifth studio album. It remains to be seen if this is music the partners had recorded prior to their decision to bring the project to an end, and have now decided to release anyway, or if this means Black Dresses is back for good. However, for the time being, what they’ve given fans with Forever in Your Heart is for all appearances not only a fully-fledged album but the first credible Album of the Year contender for 2021.
Picking up from their magnificent 2020 album, Peaceful as Hell—which felt like a definitive statement for the band and remains their best record—Forever in Your Heart stands apart as a darker and more despondent project by far. Their trademark winning humour remains, but with its redemptive edge dulled somewhat and its gallows character accentuated. The duo’s personality is not lessened though—far from it, with this album sounding even more uncompromising than the last.
One of the most unique aspects of Peaceful as Hell was the surprising dynamic between the fierce and distorted sounds on display and the often sunny and sweet-natured character of the lyrics, which might arrive in a precious tweet or a scorching roar. Here, that positivity is not only diminished but all but completely absent, indicative of a much darker emotional place for the pair. In many ways, this feels like a sister album to Peaceful as Hell, the apocalyptic yin to that project’s hopeful and curious yang.
The album’s opening track “PEACESIGN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” reads as almost a response to that last project (on the cover of which was a peace symbol) and as a declaration of intent for the album, asking, “Can we make something beautiful with no hope?” Surviving 2020 will do that to a person. With Forever In Your Heart, they have resoundingly succeeded in that aim, depending on your personal definition of beauty. Kicking off the album’s apocalyptic opening act, “PEACESIGN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” feels like the soundtrack to fleeing your scientific compound in terror, your experiment having gone horrendously awry and running rampant. That’s the tone for the record to follow.
The album’s themes of alienation and social discomfort are nothing new for Dresses, but there’s an unmistakable atmosphere of hostility and emotional desolation that has replaced the wistful yearning. In perhaps the most optimistic statement anywhere on the record, Devi sings:
We’re all on a clear light hell trip, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Just don’t come anywhere near me, and we’ll be okay.
Ideas of entrapment and isolation recur throughout the first half, on tracks like “Concrete Bubble” and “Tiny Ball,” and later tracks reflect on the process of channelling suffering into art, often with a surprisingly pessimistic perspective, seeing the process as fruitless. There’s a piercing degree of despondency in hearing an artist openly meditate on the worth of their own output, making the act of making it seem like a drain on their mental resources rather than a creative outlet for a wellspring of effortless genius.
I can’t keep it together, nothing is meant to last for that long, but it doesn’t make me feel better to put it in a stupid song.
However, the pair are far from creatively exhausted, delivering their wildest and most demented compositions yet, complete with the same unconventional and downright inspired approach to song structure.
The sounds of Peaceful as Hell, though taking heavy inspiration from industrial and metal music, had such an eclectic and bright flavour that there didn’t seem to be any dissonance between them and the more positive attitude of the lyrics. That in itself was an astonishing coup for the band, incorporating guitar leads and singalong choruses that made the gratifying nature of the songs as immediate as it has proved long-lasting. As the lyrical outlook has darkened, so have the instrumentals, which sound less accessible and more furious, taking their cues more than ever from contemporary rock. What this album loses in the sweet catchiness of past work it regains in the songs’ extremely tortured and explosive qualities, which are here ramped up to overwhelming degrees.
The pulsating house-inflected rhythms of “We’ll Figure It Out” are a newer addition to the group’s sound and underscore the song’s extremely nihilistic and pessimistic outlook, the song expressing a deep sense of despair and frustration at humanity as a whole, particularly its endless proclivity for procrastination over the great threats to its survival. There are still some incredible hooks and melodies throughout the album, though, with impeccably insane production throughout ensuring every song hits at full force.
Their music is sounding all the more DIY than before, one example being with the brief studio snippets that are much more pervasive on this project, with the duo often breaking off into cute little dialogues with each other about the song they’re trying to record or breaking down in laughter at their performances. These little interludes may sound overly precious, but on such a frequently harrowing record, their presence becomes a welcome piece of reassurance and a reminder of the personalities orchestrating this demented journey for you. As with earlier projects, however dark the outlook seems, the chemistry between the two artists itself keeps the candle of hope and humour alive. They also manage to keep a spontaneous feel despite how well-integrated they are into the flow of each song.
Consistently grimy and hellish yet driven by the unique personality and chemistry of the two musicians, Forever in Your Heart offers a dystopian vision of a world to come, one redeemed only by how exciting, surprising, and uniquely human the album expressing such a vision remains. It’s quite certainly not the best introduction to the band’s sound—for which I’d recommend Peaceful as Hell—unless you are already well-acclimatised to the more punishing extremes of the musical spectrum. Nevertheless, it’s the most rewarding of acquired tastes and one hell of a bad-day album, culminating in a final note of resilience and mobility, if nothing more reassuring than that.