Belgian art-rockers dEUS are back with 'How To Replace It', their first album in 10 years and they can't wait to play it live for you.
dEUS have never really had a philosophy. Never wanted one. Yet they’ve remained true to certain guiding principles. “You don’t want to repeat yourself, but you have your style,” says Tom Barman, frontman and genial leader of the cult Belgian art-rockers. “You want to try new stuff and just react to whatever feels fresh at the time.” So it is with How To Replace It, their eighth studio album and first in ten years; distinctive and inventive, melodic yet defiantly off-kilter. Unique. And above all, unmistakably dEUS.
That much is clear from the opening few bars of the title track, pitch-shifted timpani drums heralding the return of a band who’ve made a virtue out of defying convention. “Arresting,” says Barman of the idea; spoken word delivery, a searing guitar line, and a trumpet phrase – the latter punctuating a cacophonous crescendo, the band deciding to “just go fucking apeshit” – add to the sense of eclecticism.
Even that title – mysterious, oblique – scans as being fantastically unknowable, hinting at a deep sense of wisdom. “I like the openness of it,” says Barman. Follow the lyrical clues, and you might conclude “it” concerns romance and ageing; squint a little, and you might alight on modernity being the malaise described. Either way, fueling intrigue is by design. “It’s a question, it’s an answer…it’s up to the listener to decide.”
It’s also Barman at his enigmatic best. After ten long years, you’d think he has much to draw on, but the truth is somewhat more mundane; they’ve never really been away. “Life took over,” says Barman of the gap from 2012’s Following Sea till now, “but we never stopped working, never stopped playing live.” There was the Selected Songs 1994-2014 compilation to put together, the Soft Electric tour, numerous festival appearances, and anniversaries to celebrate – their magnum opus, The Ideal Crash, turned 20; a 65-date European tour for it took up over a year in preparation and execution.
“Things always take longer than you think,” he says laconically, “but this was not a ten-year project.” It wasn’t even four years either, and although concrete plans were laid down in 2018 – calendars cleared, sessions booked – there was rehearsing and touring The Ideal Crash, Barman’s photo exhibitions, and, of course, the pandemic. But the band’s way of working changed too. For the previous two records, jam sessions were long and structured – five days a week, noon till 6pm – with songs being moulded and developed over time. But for the How To Replace It sessions, Barman shook things up. “We had short, explosive jams. Very concentrated,” he says. “And when I heard something, I’d retreat with our engineers and do the heavy lifting. That’s how the album came together.”
Lyrically, Barman’s approach was different too. An intense, harrowing breakup and family strife resulted in some of his rawest, most confessional writing yet. It was, he says, a “pretty dramatic time – very personal, very painful.” But How To Replace It doesn’t scan as sad or downbeat; it’s quite the opposite. “It’s defiant,” he says. “And has some distance. It’s not just the raw emotion speaking – there’s the hindsight and introspection that comes after all that. And room for forgiveness.”
All this comes to a head on ‘Love Breaks Down’, a classically beautiful, elegiac ballad with a razor-sharp edge; “When love breaks down / It don’t hang around” is as brutally honest a lyric as he’s ever written. ‘Pirates’, a jauntier, more up-tempo listen complete with some trademark Klaas Janzoons violin, also packs a lyrical punch. “It’s just your fear of giving a pass to the past / As if it didn’t happen, but maybe it happened at last,” he sings, articulating that “personal hell of longing for someone who doesn’t long for you back.”
It’s an intriguing juxtaposition, and one that powers many of the songs here. Elsewhere, the band are on typically dramatic, creative form, full of ideas. There’s ‘1989’, which sounds very, well, 1989, all Linn drums, synths, and nods to yacht rock. It also sees Barman channelling his inner Leonard Cohen; smoky, seductive, and just a little gruff. “I’ve never sung so low, so it was exciting to do,” he says.
He repeats the trick on ‘Dream Is A Giver’, an altogether darker, more sombre listen, possessed of an edgier vibe that’s amplified by the spoken word delivery. Then there’s ‘Faux Bamboo’, a more traditional indie jam, and the highest register he’s ever reached on record. ‘Never Get You High’ – the closest here to what might be considered a “classic” dEUS song – chugs along, powered by a Neville Brothers-inspired constant, steady groove. “Like a river that just flows,” says Barman.
Hit play on ‘Simple Pleasures’ and you immediately think of jazz, Zappa, maybe even a little Tom Waits; full of brio and rough charm, it could easily pass as an outtake from their early years when “weird” was considered a badge of honour. Then there’s album closer ‘Le Blues Polaire’, a track sung entirely in French and one that finds in the band at their rockiest, expressive best.
“A really rough, ragged, dirty sound,” is how Barman describes it. “A very dEUS kind of thing.” There’s a romantic, French sixties vibe, with some neat piano lines, but also some downright filthy guitar tones; swirl in Barman’s deepest register once again – not to mention the impeccable French accent – and it’s a sexy, intoxicating, alluring brew. No other band would attempt to paint in such brash, carefree strokes, or in such vivid, bright tones, but then no other band has endured – or thrived – quite like dEUS. “A different kind of weird,” as Barman is fond of saying.
“We can’t fucking wait to do these songs live.”
Some bands age gracefully, slipping into something a little more comfortable. Others fade to irrelevance, with nothing left to say. Twenty-eight years after their debut record, dEUS have done neither – they remain indie stalwarts, pushing ever forward, endlessly curious and creatively restless; “After so many years, we want to do so many festivals, and play in so many places,” he says. “We can’t fucking wait to do these songs live.” How To Replace It reminds us how vital a band dEUS are; the future is still theirs to conquer.
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