If you believe everything you read on the internet (and let’s be clear, you probably shouldn’t), then the sophomore album from Bloomington, Minnesota indie-rock outfit Remo Drive, 2019’s Natural, Everyday Degradation, was a colossal, creative misfire. Trawling through vociferous YouTube comments, you’ll find fans lamenting the album and its pre-release singles, saying things like “I miss the hard stuff” and “it’s too simple and repetitive” and “the punk is gone.” Even the Internet’s busiest music nerd, Anthony Fantano, weighed in, arguing that “It all seems very middle of the road and so-so.”
Now, a little over a year later from this less-than-stellar response, Remo Drive return with a newfound sense of purpose on their third full-length album, one where the looming spectre of failure and disappointment hangs over each track like the ominous shine of a freshly sharpened guillotine.
However, rather than just a collection of songs that seek to wallow in the grime and muck of self-pity, A Portrait of An Ugly Man finds brothers Erik Paulson (vocals/guitar) and Stephen Paulson (bass) harnessing the sting of rejection and weaponizing their penchant for “nihilistic optimism” into narrative explorations of artistic growth and self-worth.
Opener “A Guide To Live By” acts as a loose thesis statement. Kicked off by a twangy intro and quick-fire stop-start licks, Erik ruminates on the power of emotional depth, personal illusions, and the propensity of people to be convinced by their own fantasies. Against a simplistic, rhythmic backbone courtesy of Stephen and touring drummer Sam Becht, Erik uses the moody bridge and ghostly synths to undercut any sense of self-confidence: “I can’t remember/I can’t remember who I am.”
It’s fitting, then, that the album moves directly into lead single “Star Worship,” itself acting as a cautionary tale of the dangers of celebrity and idolatry, complete with spaghetti western undertones and left-field Dark Crystal references.
With Erik self-producing and mixing A Portrait of An Ugly Man (recorded with his brother in the basement of their parent’s family home), each track benefits from warm and breezy instrumentation, whether it be bursts of acoustic strumming and string arrangements (“If I’ve Ever Looked Too Deep in Thought”), or Stephen’s thick bass tone rubbing against playful piano strikes (“The Ugly Man Sings” and “True Romance Lives”).
On the delightfully morbid “Dead Man,” Erik provides a dose of tongue-in-cheek self-loathing and puts his croon to work for a huge chorus refrain: “If I’m already a dead man/I might as well get naked and dance in the crosshairs.”
Elsewhere, pre-release singles like “Ode to Joy 2” and “A Flower and a Weed” showcase Remo Drive’s musical versatility as a group equally adept at unfurling melancholic, slow-burn melodies as they are at nailing raucous, energetic tempo changes. However, they’re also wise enough to save the best for (almost) last, sneaking in “The Night I Kidnapped Remo Drive” towards the end of Side B.
Playing out as the ravings of an obsessed fan, Erik & Co deliver an arresting performance that manages to assuage the concerns of devoted listeners, while also referencing both The Silence of The Lambs and their debut break-out hit “Yer Killin Me.” Bravo.
Purchase A Portrait of An Ugly Man here.