An Ancient Baby Reborn:

The Second Coming of Thee More Shallows

Words: Zachary Branner
Photo: Last fm user japandacam
October 25 2021

Seventeen years ago, Thee More Shallows was the kind of art-rock indie band that spent two years obsessing over songs with names like “Post-Present,” “Pre-Present,” and “Int #1,” followed later, of course, by “Int #2.”

Their work was self-consciously intellectual, practically academic: see “Freshman Thesis,” from that 2004 album More Deep Cuts, where David (née Dee) Kesler speaks to the paradox of music as a means of expression: “on every line / Sooner or later I‘ll have to change the meaning to fit the rhyme.” But that song ends with the singer grasping for some durable, external truth—“It’s on the tip of my ear; it’s almost palpable!” and they vow, if they finally understand it, to “write it down faithfully / I won’t try to rhyme it.” The sentiment—how the constraints of music, really of any art form, both create and delimit its expressive possibilities—is worthy of a college thesis, and that utopian hope for liberation at the end might fit a freshman. But by setting these words to music, by rhyming the lyrics, Kesler turns the song against itself: the line “mangling my observations on the meter and the beat” matches the meter and the beat, meaning it’s been mangled, too. It becomes one of those self-referential pieces that trap you in a vortex of recursion if you try to define its meaning, like the infamous Treachery of Images This Is Not a Pipe by René Magritte.

Of course, simply referring to itself does not automatically make something profound– Sorry about your wall is uninspired graffiti– but in a world where the most fundamental philosophical realities must be ignored to survive, it’s the mark of a decent work to raise an existential spectre so enjoyably that you’re not even mad about having to forget it again. Freshman Thesis, the ambiguous title either dismissing or sympathizing with the content, questions whether representational constraints can be overcome and meaning conveyed directly over a restless electronic beat. But then the beat and lyrics are consumed by stomping guitars and an ominous horn, answering the high drama of Kesler’s pleas with a driving rush of noise which crescendos for a full minute, then slips away.

This cleverness can come off as self-indulgent, especially for a band that likes to experiment–“long-format, classically-influenced music (Debussy and Mussorgsky, slow-core, dub, Krautrock, house)”–but never strays too far from ear-pleasing commercial sounds. The label’s bio of Kesler does little to dampen the pretentious air: “If you meet him and he seems distant, even a little simple-minded, it's only because you're talking to the 1 percent currently unoccupied.” And the fact that Kesler sings in a mellow whisper, much like his more successful indie-pop contemporaries James Mercer (The Shins) and Sam Prekop (Sea and Cake), invites twee stereotypes. Their three releases were received well by critics, but it’s not hard to see why they had trouble finding labels, and never won a larger audience (possibly alluded to in the title More Deep Cuts). They’re easy to dismiss as lacking the courage of their convictions, dosing under-heated indie pop with atypical song structures and poetry workshop lyrics to imply depth.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for disliking the record, but to me it sounds enchanted—their approach is literary and willfully obscure, but never antagonizes the listener. Most tracks aren’t nearly as ostentatious about their lyrics as Freshman Thesis, and instead spin gloomy, half-glimpsed narratives, spoken softly over atmospheric instrumentation. I couldn’t tell you what’s happening in many of these stories (which I like), but I cannot forget the sweet, dark moods they envelop you in, or the specificity of certain lyrics now lodged in my subconscious. “Place your hat cockeyed upon your balding head / Oh and dance a little dance to celebrate,” from Cloisterphobia, strikes me with an odd sense of triumph, like a ruined man resolving after years of dissolution to uncover his pride and his youth. And from Walk of Shame, the lines, “It’s almost time to return alone / We’ll be empty handed, and once again / Left to ourselves and our strange beliefs,” as sung in a quiet duet, hit some special note of doubt and world-weariness I find reaffirming.

The album as a whole is a slow burn, each song boring one specific hole in your mind, cyclical melodies on intimate finger-picked guitar pressing inward until they contact a deeper neural register. It recalls the methodical guitar riffs of Slint which imperceptibly accrue meaning through repetition. But the second half opens this tunnel into huge caverns, blasted open by force on songs like 2AM and Ask me about John Stross, where distortion breaks through to a new clarity. One reviewer suggested these were the Deep Cuts meant in the title, lasting gashes on your psyche. By the end of the last track, some subdued transcendence has occurred, and you’re left shaken in a strange new part of you that won’t easily heal. You may not want it to.

The ambition of the record is unmistakable. All its musical experimentation and the obscure poetry of its lyrics evince a desperate search for the truth, and an unwillingness to compromise––a veteran critic might, sighing wistfully, call them a young man’s band. Sometimes the posture is over-awed, sometimes knowing, sometimes resentful, but nearly every song squares up against an unbearable question, and tries to give an answer. The album confronts loss, the passage of time, truth, isolation, despair and wonder and the fragile bonds of reality. And while it has the hubris to try and say something to these imponderables, it has the self-awareness to do so obliquely, through shrouded stories and characters, an unexpected melodic resolution or extended instrumental section, blasts of feedback, a whirling crescendo, and final words that linger.

It’s been fourteen years since the last album. David Kesler is married, has two kids, and lives in Minneapolis working for a music production studio. A recent project had him composing upbeat whistle-and-jangly-guitar music for a series of 3M command strip commercials voiced by Tim Gunn. This May, Thee More Shallows returned.

The new full-length is called Dad Jams, a disarming title Kesler double-pronouns “it is/they are Dad Jams.”  The tracklist includes Boogie Woogie, Drinking Tang, Little Brave Friends, Hey, Come on!, and Hocus Pocus. From the first five seconds of track one it’s clear this isn’t the old Thee More Shallows of Int #’s 1 and 2. The new sound is synth-powered bedroom pop, in the vein of James Mercer’s side project Broken Bells but twice as sugary. Multi-tracked vocals, mildly autotuned, ride atop a bright wave of flute riffs, synth chord progressions, and electronic beats that build into an uplifting dance cut. And in the lyrics, Kesler drops the narrative angle and instead addresses a direct first-person confessional to his earlier self: “I watched my ego calcify my tendencies,” he sings, revisiting his old haunting questions: “what was I born for? / God, do you always have a goal? / Where do I begin? Oh, if I’m separate / Does it help me not to know?” But when the chorus takes off––and these songs have choruses, verses, bridges, and average 3 ½ minutes––he beams in triumph: “I’m not gonna / Break new ground on this question / I’m not gonna / Figure it out, I’m done guessing / So I won’t worry about it.”

The effect is an almost total renunciation of the band’s former identity. The song presents a picture of a man leaving behind his fiery youth, setting aside the consuming ambition to know and be known in graceful submission to his age, to love and fatherhood and humility before the riddle of existence. It’s a celebratory relinquishment of the hunt for certainty, an embrace of Kurt Vonnegut’s motto “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is” as an approach to the simple pleasures of being. Which means leaving behind the contrived intricacies of the band’s earlier work for an emotionally forthright, maximalist production and the shamelessly uncool taste of a dad.

Boogie Woogie features the revelation, “I always thought I’d be on top of the world / or at least I’d get ahead of it / But now I know that I was all wrong / and the world forgives me, because it is me.” But how sincere is this new attitude of acceptance? Every song seems to be about it, in increasingly baroque ways––from “Drinking Tang” which is actually a parallel story of Kesler and Jesus (“Jesus Christ you weren’t innocent / Oh did you think I was so different from you?”) to the full-on musical theater of Hocus Pocus, where a chorus of female singers tells Dave, “you’ve been focusing on the wrong things.” The theme starts to feel a little self-congratulatory, and one wonders whether somebody really at peace with their unmet expectations would feel the need to make an album about it.

Here the darker songs near the end puncture the veneer of contentment, and though wrapped in the same bouncy pop they reveal their jubilant cousins to be aspirational. “Let me count the ways I can do it / Break it down and beat the magic out,” Kesler chants on “A Strobelight on a Dumb Dancefloor,” before hymnically repeating “again again again again and again / again again again again again again / Until it all falls apart.” And on “Wizard Wednesday” he pleads, “What’s my body and mine will be yours in due time / So don’t make me go and give it all up right away.” Loneliness, fear, and melancholy are all still there, fighting against moments of unthinking harmony. But there’s something new: exhaustion.

“I feel like I’m one in a million / but my physical body is 43,” Kesler sings from a fold-out chair in an empty Costco parking lot, his unedited voice small and weathered. Drummer Jason Gonzalez, keeping time on a box-drum, raises his arm in solidarity. These guys have been doing this for a while, and at a certain point the agony of doubt loses its freshness.

The song A Mummy at the Lake returns to a lyrical motif of Thee More Shallows present since the beginning: a cabin, which I recently learned is a real log cabin by the Escanaba river, one that Kesler’s visited for decades. (His twitter features an acoustic performance of the song there, in a new key he decided works better.) “And all the stars in the sky shout down on me no time is free / And I won’t get a reprieve. Hiding in my cabin bed / Cowering at dawn’s first light with sunken cheeks,” Kesler sings. It echoes the phrasing from “Freshman Thesis” about grasping for the Absolute: “But back in the skylight all of the stars / Turn into sound and then they shout down at me...I think I may know what they’re saying to me / It’s on the tip of my ear; it’s almost palpable!” Well now he’s heard, and if we accept his transcription as faithful they say: "no time is free, and I won’t get a reprieve." The firmest truth Thee More Shallows has found is that nothing lasts forever, not even that. The answer is not to ask the question. The chorus goes, “Everything’s fought out, thought out, talked out of me,” repeated four times over another lavishly produced sunny synth-pop tune.

David has said the band have no plans to tour currently, and I’m not sure if we can expect new releases in the future. The album garnered little attention from reviewers or on social media, even by the standards of their earlier output. If this is the last we hear of Thee More Shallows, it’ll create a satisfying arc for their career from angst-ridden youths to middle-aged dads over the course of twenty years. Going dark now would cement their transition into peacetime restfulness, like the elves going west after Sauron’s demise. But as befits this band, the truth’s a little more elusive: this album’s spattered with dark moments and indulgent choices, while past records can radiate a joy and simplicity unexpected amid their prevailing gloom. And though immediately gratifying Kesler’s compositions here still take unforeseen turns, retaining that exploratory-yet-approachable feel from the old days. Despite appearances, something tells me Thee More Shallows won’t be content with this neat legacy.

Listen to Dad Jams here︎︎︎






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