by Niccolo Dante Porcello (@chromechompsky)
LVL UP’s third LP, and first for Sub Pop, is a significant step forward for a band that has already been writing fleshed out songs for the entirety of their career. Return to Love is a collection of songs that resonate as not only mature, but also wise as to the processes involved in becoming a person; present are the moments of epiphany, sorrow, and contemplation that inevitably transpire as one moves from the raw adolescent years to those in the great beyond of adulthood.
2014’s Hoodwink’d launched LVL UP into the upper strata of the amorphous and oft-referenced Brooklyn “DIY” scene. Fresh out of SUNY Purchase, LVL UP crafted an album that reflected halcyon moments of newly wrought independence and camaraderie; Hoodwink’d feels, in many ways, like a dedicated ode to the friendships founded around the quartet. The excellent “DBTS” detailed the still-extant house/venue David Blaine’s The Steakhouse where various members of LVL UP and friends lived, threw shows, and partied. But where LVL UP separated their brand of experiential rock from that of lesser others was on songs like “Primordial Heat,” where immensely memorable verses floated over rollicking waves of fuzz: “I could get stoned alone and stare at the phone/ just chill out till I’m ready to go back home/ its alright, and like/ at least I have you guys/ to bring down the rain/ it doesn’t take much for me to feel insane/ so wash me clean and make me new again/ by primordial heat of original sin.” Again and again on Hoodwink’d, LVL UP managed to articulate a vague mix of insouciance and wonder at the unfathomable strangeness and excitement inherent in those years; on Return to Love they move beyond exploration of nearby others and turn distinctly inwards, dedicating serious contemplative energy on understanding what it all means. Across Return to Love’s 10 tracks, the songwriting trio of Dave Benton, Mike Caridi, and Nick Corbo explore mysticism, changing relationships, and the mechanisms by which growing up both grounds and releases, all while composing their most musically interesting work to date.
The opening song “Hidden Driver” is a relentlessly building paean to internal mechanisms by which individuals are compelled. Benton sings “I can feel three angels forming a place between everything I see/ God is peeking/ softly speaking/ breaking everything” obfuscated beneath a duvet of fuzz that is exceptional by even LVL UP’s standards. LVL UP eventually break it wide open and “Hidden Driver” asserts itself as one of the most anthemic tunes in their discography – furious guitar howls and Greg Rutkin’s crashing drum line prop up repeated yells of “god is peeking/ softly speaking/ fucking everything/ till I do see see see.” Much of the magic of this refrain comes from the homonym of peeking and peaking – officially the lyric sheet says “peeking” but thinking of it as alternating: “god is peeking/ god is peaking” the introspective divining of “Hidden Driver” is handily accentuated.
“She Sustains Us” finds LVL UP and Mike Caridi layering their sentimental fuzz over gently placed and immensely catchy synth lines, a relatively new musical addition. Caridi posits: “there is no tone, no special note/ that begins without being told/ and the teller will never know/ what beauty does unfold/ the teller is a part of me/ and she tells me everything.” A wobbly but defiant synth line floats behind this, and we see Caridi approach the idea of a ‘hidden driver’ as it were from a different angle. This is perhaps another elucidation of a main theme running through the record – a consistent search for existentially motivating forces.
The phenomenal “Spirit Was” rounds out an opening trio of new songs (“Blur” was previously released on the 3 Songs EP) with something of a more outward purview. Penned by Nick Corbo, “Spirit Was” is a heavy burner and one of LVL UP’s most ruefully sentimental songs to date. “I’m at a wake/ and drawing geometric shapes/ you slept on the train/ but I’ve been up for days/ you look the same but half-dead and actin your age/ I was embraced, asphyxiated, and taking on my shape” is somehow a profoundly identifiable statement, especially for those recently and unexpectedly engaged by people from one’s past. “Spirit Was” gives voice to that exact moment of reckoning that develops from being utterly unsure of what your relationship to a person used to be, all while the quartet swirls and explodes around Corbo’s low growl. “Spirit Was” fades into “Pain,” the fantastic halfway point on Return to Love. “Pain” may be both the poppiest and most vintage LVL UP song to date (supplanting “Annie’s a Witch”), a furious and bouncy five and half minutes that build to a cathartically great and irresistibly joyous outro. Greg Rutkin’s ebullient drum line drives a narrative of a foul dalliance; here narrative and composition juxtapose and find a sweet spot of happy songs about shitty things, through which healing begins. It is a well-worn trope, and yet it rarely has sounded as good or rocked as hard as “Pain.”
“Five Men On The Ridge” and “Cut From The Vine” scale back from the ecstatic highs of “Hidden Driver” and “Pain,” instead relying on creating beautiful worlds of their own. “Five Men” is a Lovecraftian tale rendered with imagery: “he has seen the creator!/ ageless, boundless, sexless!/ life rose up from the water and stripped you blind of your senses/ become an ever burning candle,” around which LVL UP provide a distinctive backdrop, on which slide-y guitars and Casio-plunks sit somewhat ominously. This sentiment is furthered on “Cut From The Vine,” where the spirit is manifest in the physical trappings of the surrounding world. Both of these songs come courtesy of Nick Corbo, and play as perfect foil to Benton and Caridi’s manner of introspection both musically and lyrically. Return to Love, and indeed LVL UP as a band, is so great precisely because of the complementary ranges of their songwriting. Never does one point of view over stay its welcome, and the result is a wild, scuzz-laden trip.
The album closes with “Naked in the River with the Creator,” a seven-plus minute dirge that is as far removed from their typical sound as LVL UP has ever gotten, with exceptional reward. The song marches forward from an underwater opening to something like Gregorian-Chant-DIY; noisy bass tones, sustained organ notes, spooky piano, and chaotic drums build up the yells of “dark river/ white water/ gaining purpose/ moving stronger/ ash rising/ bright father/ dogs running from the Earth’s daughter.” “Naked” is the best song on an album full of LVL UP’s best songs, finding a unique way of synthesizing all of what has come before it, both on this record and their first two. It seems like a defining moment for a band that has often made extraordinarily catchy rock songs. To boot, put on full display is the creative ability of these four people, and how well they have honed their craft.
Return to Love has the precious distinction of being as meaningful or as escapist as the listener desires. The members of LVL UP have said as much – there is not always a need to ascribe profound meaning to each and every lyric, but an album is best when it can have meaning if you need it to, or be a fundamentally great record to put on when you just want to listen to something. For every moment that Hoodwink’d was an album about surrounding people, Return to Love is about the world around. It is a gorgeously wrought contemplation of “why?” as much as it is a really interesting rock album; rarely has an album be so spiritual while simultaneously being so free from any ecclesiastical underpinnings. These questions are far more interested in understanding processes than answers; on “Hidden Driver” Benton says: “I still think of God the same way/ as the moments in my dreams when I’m fading away,” where as on “I” Caridi says “I hate myself too/ but I can never hate you.” These are two different sentiments expressed on the same plane of understanding, the place in which growing up means finding joy in the process, not merely the results.