Lower Dens' last album, 2012's Nootropics, dealt with singer-guitarist Jana Hunter's preoccupation with transhumanism — the notion that human evolution is far from over, and that we may have to alter our own species radically in order to survive the challenges of the future, both here on Earth and in the far reaches of space. It's far-out stuff for sure, although Hunter has decided to probe a little closer to home on Lower Dens' arresting new album, Escape From Evil. While it retains plenty of Nootropics' sleek, sci-fi texture, complete with frigid synthesizers and chiseled rhythms, Escape from Evil zooms in on the most mysterious part of the elaborate, adaptable mechanism known as Homo sapiens: the heart.
Love songs abound on Escape from Evil, although you'd be hard-pressed to limit them as such. On the chillingly sultry track "Ondine," Hunter implores, "I will treat you better" in a liquid nitrogen croon that comes on like an android Annie Lennox. Hunter's guitar playing is as jittery and intricate as the motion of an industrial assembly line. Things don't warm up much on the pulsing "Sucker's Shangri-La" or "Electric Current," whose lulling, isolationist theatrics aren't a far cry from Kate Bush's circa The Sensual World. Hunter is known for her clipped, minimal guitar style, but "Non Grata" feels more like a long-lost synthpop classic of the '80s, complete with robotic bass and an undeniable dance floor undertow.
Even when the album gets propulsive — as it does on the icy anthem "To Die In L.A.," whose reference to the 1985 film To Live and Die in L.A. only adds to the Reagan-era chill — there's a warm, gooey center that oozes lushness and longing. "Quo Vadis" is the most compelling showcase for Hunter's voice, and her vulnerability, on the album; "I wanna be with you alone," she chants, holding forth on postmodern loneliness in a code of sighs and whispers. Meanwhile a sad, cyborg-disco beat pings away like its battery is running out. As sprawling as it feels, it pales in comparison to "I Am The Earth." The song starts out slow and hollow before being filled in, bit by bit, with stuttering drums and dreamy, sumptuous guitar swells. When Hunter sings, "I will still be spinning here long after you go," she's taken her metaphor so far that she might as well be channeling Gaia herself.
The upbeat, chrome-plated catchiness of "Company" is as close to Nootropics' krautrock vibe as Escape from Evil gets. The difference between the two albums, though, is driven home on "Your Heart Still Beating." After establishing a throbbing bass line that sounds, sure enough, like a heartbeat, Hunter and crew build the song into a shimmering, ambient symphony of near-operatic proportions. "All of my fears / Coming to life / All of my time / Wanting you near / At my side," she implores dispassionately yet all the more romantically because of her cautious, mixed-signal remoteness. For an album so sculpted and precise, trying to pin down its emotional core is like trying to catch quicksilver. But that's what gives Escape From Evil its rich, pensive complexity, not to mention its retro-futuristic mystique.