Every once in awhile, a band will release an album whose cover art is more than impressive. Rather than simply putting a pretty picture to a collection of songs, it profoundly influences the listening experience. Perhaps it invites, intrigues or just mystifies. In the best of cases, it evokes an emotional response from the listener before the music even starts. Whatever the exact case may be, Return to Love is one of those albums. Illustrated in immensely satisfying detail and contained by a thick white border, the cover’s naturescape is a crucial, almost necessary introduction to the album. Invoking nature and, by extension, solitude, it primes the listener for an experience centered on self-discovery. At the same time, the pure whiteness that surrounds this image indicates a crisp, aesthetically intelligent quality, setting a standard that the music itself surely matches.
On Return to Love, LVL UP’s third studio album and first for Sub Pop, the four-piece outfit finds a highly rewarding medium between fuzz-infused punk bombast and lo-fi subtlety. After meeting at SUNY Purchase in New York, Mike Caridi, Dave Benton and Nick Corbo joined forces as LVL UP and introduced themselves to the world on 2011’s quietly released Space Brothers, an album comprised almost entirely of quick in-and-out jams — its 13 tracks clock in at just over 23 minutes total. Drummer Greg Rutkin joined them on tour — he’s now a permanent fixture in the band — though he doesn’t write any of the material. The other three split song-writing responsibilities roughly evenly, which is surprising given the generally cohesive nature of their work together. Now, following 2014’s breakthrough Hoodwink’d, Return to Love finds LVL UP crafting the most fleshed out, lyrically complex material they’ve released to date.
Opening on single “Hidden Driver,” the influence of ’90s fuzz-folk is immediately apparent; one almost expects Jeff Mangum to jump in with a nasally “two-headed boy” after the opening chords. LVL UP’s lyrics are also just as inscrutable as Mangum’s always were. For a brief taste: “Hidden driver / forming shape inside my chest / omnipotent in the way that it arrests / every sense and every lesson.” The exact meaning of these opening lines doesn’t ever become particularly clear, but the song finds the band grappling with the idea of god — God? — and the biblical Fall.
While fuzz permeates the album, some tracks are also characterized by touches of synthesizer. An absolute master class on restraint, the playful synth line that comes in at the two-minute mark (and only appears twice) on “She Sustains Us” is a testament to LVL UP’s arguably newfound maturity. This synth in particular, as well as other artificial sounds that crop up here and there — the sample that opens the track, for example — also add an exciting, almost genre-defying dimension to the band’s overall vibe.
Despite all of the change or deviation from previous direction that characterizes Return to Love, longtime fans need not be in dismay! Fuzz permeates, but refuses to dominate, and tracks like “Cut from the Vine” find more of the clean, singular guitar melodies that largely defined their previous releases. What’s more, the band members’ voices haven’t changed a bit. Still the perfect complement for their guitar-driven brand of quasi-punk, their voices are never particularly urgent, and remain constant while the guitars set the emotional tone.
Bordering on monotone, LVL UP’s laid-back, gently lilting vocals bring a casual quality to an album whose thematic content could be considered anything but. Here, LVL UP confront the idea of a higher being on “Hidden Driver” and condemn someone who has recently betrayed a friend to “grow old and never find love.” In addition to covering all of the usual bases of indie lo-fi alt-rock, the band has widened their focus, singing beyond just their own distinctly personal experiences. They continue to embrace individuality, but have contextualized it with the knowledge of a much greater, much more significant and unpredictable unknown. The idea of a singular, omnipotent deity appears not only on “Hidden Driver”—see “Naked in the River with the Creator” and “Cut from the Vine — and could reflect the instability ubiquitous in recent years for the four New Yorkers. In interviews, they have said that they decided they would be going their separate ways if things didn’t come together. Thankfully, signing to Sub Pop seems to have had more of a humbling effect than an ego-inflating one. In small print — at the bottom of the aforementioned album cover, beneath the river, the mountains and the entirety of the lush landscape — are two words: “Thank you.”