Veteran songwriter formerly of The Damnwells takes influence from the ‘80s on his third album as a solo artist.
It’s been three years since The Damnwells— the Americana/rock band from New York City responsible for putting their frontman Alex Dezen in the spotlight—called it quits. Throughout their time, they released five studio albums and came within inches of major label success, but ultimately faded out. Since then, Dezen has been working diligently to build a solo career, and it fits him well. He’s evolved more as an artist over the last three years than he did in the 15 he spent making music with The Damnwells.
Since 2015, Dezen has released three EPs, three self-titled solo albums, and a live album. It all started with the endearing, magnetic Bedhead EPs, and was followed with the stripped-down, memoir-esque I, the nostalgic and experimental II, the live album Alive in America, and now III. His solo material has managed to strike a strong balance between the personal and political, while also functioning as a tribute to the music that inspired him when he was young. III is no different in this regard, and it stands out as his most ambitious solo effort yet.
III (stylized as ///) is Dezen’s first solo album made in close creative proximity with his partner and collaborator, the actress/comedian Amber Bollinger. Bollinger’s backing vocals are at the center of these songs. Dezen’s third solo endeavor is a spacious, synth-driven romp through the vast, danceable, and hook-heavy songwriting of ‘80s rock. This influence is the most obvious on anthemic tracks like “Run Away From You,” a playful and shadowy duet that echoes emotional turmoil at every corner. The carnal and self-aware “Animal” moves at a similar velocity, utilizing bright synthesizers and slick, pop production. It’s one of the angriest songs Dezen has ever written, but it’s shining and infectious at the same time; two energies he’s able to bridge together masterfully. “From Your Knees” maintains the anger of “Animal,” and is also one of the most left-field yet memorable additions to III. With fuzzy, synth-heavy verses that drown his vocals in static, the song eventually makes a headfirst slide into a melodic chorus layered with vocal harmonies from Bollinger and a jagged guitar refrain.
The pop side of the ‘80s comes through at its most irresistible on the bracing, political “The End of America.” The song is romantic and fatalistic all at once, with tongue-in-cheek lines like “I am not your judging jury/I am your Judge Judy,” all wrapped up by one of the most masterful and infectious hooks Dezen has ever written. “Let me be your jester today/We can blow the heavens away/We can drive to the end of America,” he sings, maintaining a sense of youthful sentimentality while also acknowledging that it’s all going down in flames.
Despite the glitz and experimental flash of many of the songs on III, Dezen doesn’t hold back from stripping things down. The lead single “When You Need Me”is a vibrant, ambitious love song that uses ethereal and spacious production to make a sweeping declaration of infatuation. It runs at over six minutes and is bound together by a simple, two-note piano lead that remains the same, but feels brighter and brighter as the song progresses. The album closes with “Cool Places,” a piano-clad duet that uses youthful, simple language to portray a vibrant romance. “I wanna go to cool places with you/I wanna take you cool places tonight/I wanna go where nobody’s a fool/And no one says ‘Hey girl, need a light?’” The song is unconcerned with any lyrical or instrumental frills, and distills love down to its most forthright.
Alex Dezen is a veteran songwriter who has grown increasingly more comfortable with himself and his artistic range, and III is one of his finest works yet. In many ways, these solo albums he’s diligently spent the last three years working on have served as a deconstruction of Dezen’s history as a songwriter; they’ve taken apart the musical conventions he abided by for so long and made something new from the disassembled parts. These songs are a long way from the Americana-laced balladeering of The Damnwells, but they’re not any less successful at leaving a lasting impression.
Keep up with Alex here.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.