Ah, forgiveness. That old chestnut. Easier said than done? Sure. But what does forgiveness even entail to a person who’s been running their entire life?
When we’re born, we’re not aware that our hearts don’t belong on the outside. We learn to shield and protect them out of necessity, gradually discovering that not everybody we connect with is a trustworthy, good-natured person. Some of us come to that realization faster than others, but reaching that conclusion never ceases to be a brutal wake-up call.
The Drums is a veteran indie pop band from New York led by Jonny Pierce, who built up a cult following that they’ve sustained throughout the years. I was never really a fan of The Drums growing up, but I’d always been aware of the band’s existence through osmosis and the many teens in my peer group who had “Let’s Go Surfing” as their ringtone. I’d saved some of their more recent songs to my Spotify library in college like “Body Chemistry” and “Blip of Joy,” but I’d never reached the point where I was floored by a full body of work. I guess you could say I’d written them off as a gateway post punk band in the same way people would consider Cherry Glazerr an entry level indie rock band.
Their latest album Jonny completely changed that for me. For a start, it’s not an easy listen, and it certainly doesn’t require a great deal of insight to recognize that Jonny Pierce has been running his entire life. Raised in a Pentecostal household in Horseheads, New York, Pierce was shunned by his immediate family for his sexuality and has since severed contact with them completely.
Jonny the album is equally as striking visually as it is sonically, the cover depicting Pierce fully naked in his childhood home, bent over a chair in a prayer position. More than just a symbol of repressed queer Christian baggage, this photo represents a defiant reclamation of a space where Pierce was made to feel powerless for so long.
Jonny is a brutal excoriation of religious trauma, sexuality, shame, isolation, and learning to heal through a filter of candy-coated twee pop. Pierce had explored and reflected on his past in previous records, but Jonny represents a breaking point. The emotional floodgates have opened. He’s tired of running. And while it might be too late to shield his younger self from the hand he was dealt, it’s never too late to heal.
It’s so clear throughout the run of this album that Pierce is aching to love and nurture that little boy who was harmed but still struggles to do so fully. This is most apparent in the interlude “Protect Him Always,” where he sings “I’m healing fast as I can, I’m so sorry.” To call these lyrics a swift punch to the gut would be an understatement, and it’s exacerbated tenfold in Pierce’s frail, almost defeated delivery.
Stylistically, Jonny contains all the key qualities of a classic ’90s indie pop record from the Creation Records pantheon, specifically calling to mind groups like Felt, The Pastels, and The Wake, while still maintaining a uniqueness that allows the record to stand on its own legs. The ridiculously catchy syncopated guitar lines and wheezing synths are plentiful, but the most outstanding parts are the points when the music comes to a standstill on the tail end of a track like “Harms” or the interlude “Little Jonny,” leaving only Pierce’s strained voice, a minimal synth bass progression, and ethereal choir-like backing vocals that sound like they’re underwater.
A major highlight is “Dying,” a duet with Rico Nasty, an odd pairing on paper, but in practice, their chemistry is undeniable. The interplay between the two of them singing a ballad of grief over a skittering hyperpop beat represents the perfect twining of wounded souls, who not only find strength in gentleness and vulnerability but also find solace and comfort in each other.
Another thing that’s so great about this album is its perfect balance of sadness and humor, with cheeky one-liners like “My loneliness fucks me better than you.” There are also plenty of joyful comedown tracks like “Obvious,” “The Flowers,” and “Teach My Body.” It’s these points where Pierce gives himself permission to be lighthearted and even a little bit silly, that prevent the record from spiraling into a tragic dirge.
Pierce’s ability to tap into his dynamic range musically and emotionally has clearly reached its pinnacle and yielded his best work yet. His drive to love that inner child who was hurt in spite of everything that was taken from him in his formative years is a state of self-actualization that everybody should strive to reach. If this record reveals anything, it’s that we all have our Sisyphean battles in life, and fighting them off is a marathon, not a race.
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