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First Listen: Kevin Drew, 'Darlings'

Kevin Drew's new album, <em>Darlings, </em>comes out March 18.
Courtesy of the artist
Kevin Drew's new album, Darlings, comes out March 18.

Back in 2007, Kevin Drew (of Toronto's baroque-pop collective Broken Social Scene) gazed longingly at a woman and pronounced her too beautiful for the carnal escapades swirling inside his brain. That song, "Tbtf," was among the wondrous creations on his solo debut Spirit If — a worship-dream set in a sleek, gliding tempo, and sung in a mood of melancholy wistfulness.

Now Drew returns with the exceedingly direct "Good Sex," which looks at vanishing romantic ideals in the age of the Tinder hookup. "Good sex should never make you feel hollow," he sings, skipping up to a giddy post-coital falsetto for the last syllable. "Good sex should never make you feel clean."

Is this progress? Going from a nuanced, image-rich reverie like "Tbtf" to a repeating series of blunt observations on the art of sex?

In Drew's case, yes. We often measure artistic growth by focusing on the big strides, but the evolution that defines Drew's second solo album, Darlings, is most apparent in the fine print — and, notably, in what he's trimmed away to make hyper-streamlined, tightly edited songs. The songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who helped guide Broken Social Scene through several gorgeous, lushly orchestrated albums is thinking differently about the scale of his songs, pruning back whatever is unnecessary. "Good Sex" works in part because it aims to express a simple idea, and uses few words juxtaposed against BSS-like widescreen music to do it. At the song's start, Drew's declarations seem oddly prescriptive and blunt, the mantras of a free-weekly sex columnist. But as the accompaniment gathers steam and eventually arrives at a full anthemic thrum, the tone changes, and a more personal refrain — "I'm still breathing with you, baby" — takes over. Just like that, what began as a cheap device sprouts dimension, registering as intimate, romance-novel heroic and just a touch sarcastic all at once.

This kind of distillation is an art, and Darlings suggests that Drew is becoming a master of it. Many of the songs spring from stray ideas and single moments; rather than seize and analyze the component parts of some fleeting rush, Drew just follows its path, then figures out what sorts of sounds best convey its essence. Some songs, like "It's Cool," amount to a series of vibey Lou Reed-ish whispers; others, like "You Gotta Feel It," use the propulsion of a basic four-on-the-floor bass drum to power a brave search for what matters in life. Where other songwriters obsess over the details of story, Drew zooms in on a moment and chases the full sensory experience of it — to hear perhaps the most crystalline of these freeze-frame moments, check out "First in Line."

Then there's "You in Your Were," an unsettling reverie punctuated by vaguely math-rock guitar arpeggios. It's a look at the power of lingering memories, and what it means to hang on, perhaps obsessively, to a memory — a topic that has doomed many songs to the high-concept dungeon. Drew avoids this fate through inventive, continuously unfolding guitar and synth textures. The song is one long rousing crescendo; its surging rhythm, which recalls Neon Bible-era Arcade Fire, gathers momentum like a plane on the runway. Everything is hurtling forward, except for those words Drew is singing about looking back, and the contrast is just strange enough to sound like genius.

There's a lot of that disarming stuff on Darlings. Though he's thinking in simpler, more earthbound terms as a lyricist, Drew can't help but write music that sprawls in satisfying, sometimes bone-rattling ways. He's on the hunt for atmospheres that allow for the expression of profound intimacy and massive sonic grandeur all at once, and when he finds one, it's a glimpse of a rare and beautiful euphoria.

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.