Just a couple of months ago I picked Black Dresses’s Forever in Your Heart as my favourite album of last year. I hadn’t expected to. For a long time I thought The Turning Wheel or Sinner Get Ready would take that spot, but looking back on the year, I decided it was appropriate to go with a more personal pick, the “I don’t care if everybody I put onto this absolutely hates it, I need to say my piece” choice. And it’s not even my favourite Black Dresses album!
Black Dresses’s music is hard to divorce entirely from the narrative surrounding it. The group blew up following some big endorsements, only to receive such a vitriolic backlash that the band broke up (only as a musical project, Devi and Ada remained a couple), only to unexpectedly return a year later, the two having clearly been jaded by the experience. Their best album, the one that gained them all that attention, both positive and negative, spoke of a kind of cautious optimism: Peaceful as Hell was the absolute definition of Chaotic Good, so it was all the more tragic to see that hopefulness crushed. When they came back with Forever in Your Heart, the pair were taking no prisoners and had a much bleaker outlook on the world. Although their troubled new minor celebrity was likely only one small part of that, there was no shortage of reasons to come out of 2020 much more burned out than you went into it.
Their new release Forget Your Own Face confirms what we’d all hoped, that Forever in Your Heart wasn’t a fluke and Black Dresses is still alive and well as a musical project. The respective side projects of band members (and girlfriends) Devi McCallion and Ada Rook have been, to varying degrees, fantastic, but the chemistry the two have together is irresistible, pushing each other to create their best material. Part of what makes Black Dresses so sweet and compelling is the real sense of camaraderie and love that comes off their work together. These two oddballs have each found the one other person in the world who completely gets them. No matter how dark or despairing their music gets, there’s always the redemptive conciliation that they’re not going through it alone and that’s the experience they offer their listener.
The two are always perfectly sympatico and their combined musical vision is one of the most unique and exciting to be found anywhere. The rawness and intimacy of Devi and Ada’s respective vocals, each one alternating between a choked up whisper and a primal scream, gives their music an emotional expressiveness that seems to almost entirely bypass any kind of performative shielding, it feels totally genuine. Their total disregard for the orthodoxies of song structure and genre breaks down restrictions of form, giving their music a spontaneity and energy that would be impossible to fabricate or recapture. At the end of the ironic rager “MONEY MAKES YOU STUPID” they both seem to forget where they were going with this and just trail off into the next song, a hilarious extension of the track’s chaotic rebellious attitude with both of them belting out nonsensical accusatory questions.
It’s also welcome to hear a little of that warmth come back into their music. The lyrics remain as dark as ever, but Forget Your Own Face is still a remarkably fun listen with more prominence given to bubbly synth melodies and sweeter vocals in among the rage and upset. They’ve gone from asking “Can we make something beautiful with no hope?” on the last album to advising: “Believe there’s still good in the world or you’ll lose your mind”. The sweetest and most beautiful track here is still called “doomspiral” though, draw what conclusions you will from that.
Like their last album, Forget Your Own Face was released on Valentine’s Day. It’s a much shorter record than their last two hour long projects, running only twenty minutes, broken up into eight tracks. The duo’s sound is as relentlessly loud and aggressive as ever, so much so that around the third consecutive listen I had to take a break cause I was concerned about doing some kind of serious ear damage. The first two tracks alone might make this the most crushingly loud album the pair have ever released and it’s brevity might be a necessity of that maximalism.
I’ve listened to everything Black Dresses have put out multiple times and I’m still not sure what genre to put them in. The snorting vocal processing on “Let’s Go” is reminiscent of the late hyper-pop pioneer SOPHIE’s track “Whole New World”, the distorted blast beats and bubbly synth arpeggios aren’t too dissimilar from something you might hear in the most out there of industrial hip hop, and their vocals can range from dreampop to screamo at the drop of a hat. I once saw them genre tag one of their albums as “lesbian slacker music” and I can’t possibly improve on that descriptor.
What’s most shocking about their music is how catchy and engaging it remains, despite it’s lyrical despondency and punk maximalism. Devi and Ada keep finding musical ideas to layer over one another and achieve a kind of cohesion out of the madness. They perform with such charisma that almost any set of non-rhyming lyrics can be converted into a hook that gets stuck in your head. Synths purr, trill, blare, bleep, and squawk and drums blast and rattle and it all sounds alternately euphoric, irate, and despondent. These moments of bipolar tone create a whole that is overwhelming but ultimately incredibly hopeful, as reinforced by their amazing lyrics, which portray a uniquely queer existential angst, mingling rage and self loathing offset by their anarchic feminine bravado and razor sharp sense of humor.
The sheer poetry of their lyrics takes a back seat on some moments, but there are still times where I’m transported by the frequently apocalyptic imagery the two conjure up. A particular favourite example is Ada Rook’s chorus to “doomspiral”, which is as heartbreakingly beautiful as it is catchy, a bittersweet emotional portrait of watching your efforts come to naught, being left to wonder if the journey was still worth it: “Burning up like an insect in the sun, I just wanna be useful to someone. On the final day, did I make you smile?”
The most consistent theme unique to Forget Your Own Face is a rage from Devi directed at cultural appropriation. The opening track “u_u2” is effectively a diss track directed at artists copying their style, and the incredibly cathartic “GAY UGLY AND HARD TO UNDERSTAND” opens with an intro from Devi that runs: “shoutout to Big Freedia, New Orleans bounce music, every b*tch track ever made for NYC drag balls before Ru Paul made being gay uncool”. Devi goes in on this track and her rage here is so badass and righteous: “off my old CD, you could copy a track, sell it to Roadrunner, make your money back. It’s the corniest sh*t, put Travis Barker on it. Oh my god what the f*ck is your problem?!”
Equally, the album is an extension of their meditation upon their art and what the response to it has meant to them. They were clearly both very hurt by the backlash and the devastating lyrics to tracks like “earth worm” bear that out: “having value to the faceless ones and shining bright in the sun? F*ck it, I never knew them […] I wish I was a worm, crawl into the dirt, now no one can hurt me”. I fervently hope Devi and Ada are able to move past this darkness and that their work stays out of the hands of people looking for a target for their performative cruelty. I almost feel bad drawing attention to their work at the risk that more people will be frustrated by it and take that frustration out on them. But if Devi and Ada think having their work out there is worth the risk of rejection then I’m going to give them their flowers.
Black Dresses is the best band in the world right now. Their aesthetic and perspective are one of a kind, their performances utterly committed, and their songwriting skills light-years ahead of their contemporaries. They’re the most out of the box, exciting artists who’ve carved out a niche for themselves that’s a perfect union of form and content. Their defiantly queer hellraising is an ongoing source of creative inspiration and a wellspring of some of the best songs this decade has yet produced. The 2020s belong to Black Dresses.