When Jana Hunter, the lead singer of Baltimore indie rock band Lower Dens, talks about “Nootropics,” the group’s eerie, aurally absorbing 2012 concept album about transhumanism, she chuckles. “It’s about man’s nature versus his technical obsession and his obsession with growth. ... It’s very overreaching. It was a very engrossing project to work on and I’m glad that I did it, but it also is insane. And I feel like it’s been a much more focused journey this time, making this record.”
The record in question is “Escape From Evil,” which came out March 31 and seems to breathe more freely while maintaining Lower Dens’ signature gloom. (The band plays the Sinclair in Cambridge on June 20.) On “Nootropics,” Hunter sang evocative-yet-enigmatic lyrics like those on “Propagation:” “Population incandescent/ All roads lead here/ Propagation.” Meanwhile, “Escape From Evil” contains yearning pop hooks crooned over phosphorescent synths: “Time will turn the tide;” “I will treat you better.” Both “Nootropics” and the band’s 2010 debut “Twin Hand Movement” sported black-and-white album art, while the cover of “Escape From Evil” winks with fluorescents and pastels.
Hunter says that the album’s sonic explorations, which churn with the gentle fizz of ‘80s nostalgia, are connected to a newfound lyrical directness. “When we were writing, part of my main focus was keeping song structures really simple, keeping parts really simple. Making things that we could’ve played when we started playing our instruments, that brand new players could play. But playing those simple things the very best we could. And similarly, rather than try to reach as far as I could conceptually, in writing, I really just wanted to focus on the kinds of things that are the basic building blocks of a person’s life or existence.”
A little over a week after the release of “Escape From Evil,” Cosmopolitan.com published an essay by Hunter titled “What It’s Like to Be a Female Musician When You Don’t Identify as a Woman.” The piece explored Hunter’s personal experiences with misogyny in the music industry, but also functioned as the singer’s “coming out,” of sorts, as genderfluid—though she had written something similar in a Tumblr post the previous July. (Hunter says she uses both masculine and feminine pronouns in her personal life, but does not have a preferred pronoun for print.) In the Cosmo essay, she wrote, “I vacillate between feminine and masculine aesthetics, and not just in the way I dress, the way I keep my hair, and the way I do my makeup, but also in subtleties of presentation and body language. Sometimes I feel (and am) more toward one end of the gender spectrum than the other.”
Though a recent Pitchfork review described “Escape From Evil” as “a vivid world of queer futurism,” Hunter says that none of the songs were written about being genderfluid per se. The subject asserts itself more subtly. Hunter has always sung in an androgynous drawl, which on “Escape From Evil” cuts more directly through the sonic mist than in previous albums. In the music video for the song “To Die In L.A.,” Hunter sports a buzz cut, black eyeliner and a gray suit. “It has kind of been, and is, more and more important to me that the characters in the songs have no gender,” she says. “I guess I want people to be able to read the songs the way that they need to read them. In general, I feel like that‘s one of the major functions of songs, for people who are listing to them, that they need stories to tell themselves.”
In Hunter’s telling, “Escape From Evil” is as much about the band as it is about herself. The singer-songwriter got her start as a solo artist on Devendra Banhart’s freak-folk label Gnomonsong. She formed Lower Dens because she yearned for the dynamics, the interplay, of a band. (Lower Dens also marked her transition away from the acoustic twang of her early work towards her particular brand of moody synth-rock.) When the band convened, in early 2013, to rehearse for a third album, it was with the intention of co-writing all the songs. But the group was thrown into disarray when guitarist Will Adams quit unexpectedly; Hunter thinks he wanted to spend more time with his family and less time touring, but she is not entirely sure of his motivations. In the end, she wrote all the songs on “Escape From Evil” herself over the course of a year and a half, occasionally emailing bassist Geoff Graham for feedback. Yet, she says, the group dynamic managed to make an imprint on the album anyway.
“The songs wouldn’t be anything like they are without the contributions of everybody in the band,” she says. “And then also, I think an important thing that happened for me was that after this one member left, in the ensuing months it made me realize, in a way that I maybe hadn’t previously, how precious these musical relationships are to me. How precious these people are in my life, as my band members. So when I was writing, I feel like I was writing for them. The drums were written for Nate [Nelson] to play. The bass parts that I wrote were written for Geoff.”
Lower Dens have always been the kind of band reviewers describe as “atmospheric,” and “Escape From Evil” is no different. It roils with slow-building tension, like a city falling from shadowy dusk into murky darkness. At the same time, each sound is easily identified and just-so: the clear chime of Hunter’s guitar, a ruminative bassline, the crisp thwack of a snare, the fervent whisper of synths. Hunter has always written songs that feel stretched and understated, but on “Escape From Evil” she peppers her languorous compositions with dramatic harmonic movement. For seemingly the first time, she writes what sounds like straightforward love lyrics, like those in “Ondine:” “It’s time to walk away and leave this behind/ Let go/ I will treat you better.” But upon closer inspection the song is marked by contradiction: “Let go,” and then later, “Hold on.” Despite the ambiguity of the sentiment, Hunter sounds sure.
“I think one of the hardest things about existing in a group, like humans do, is sticking your head up and saying ‘I don’t know,’” says Hunter. “Admitting that you don’t know is a way of exposing yourself as vulnerable. And I think it’s a lot easier to say ‘You know what, it’s foreign to me, I don’t like it, I’m against it.’ Than to say ‘I don’t understand it and I would like to.’ So it’s definitely been important for me in wanting to grow as a person and wanting to be a better person is learning to admit when I don’t know. Things about myself, things about other people. And it’s something that I want to make other people feel comfortable with, too.”