There was no reason to expect that the boys of Twin Peaks would ever grow up. The core four had been friends since middle school, where they smoked weed and jammed out to whatever early rock records they could get their hands on. They released their first album, Sunken, right around the time they graduated from their Chicago high school, and the subsequent tour generated such starry-eyed buzz that they gave a middle finger to college in favor of embracing their DIY roots. 2014’s follow-up, Wild Onion, found them blowing up their sound to double-record size, and the result was a junk pile of tunes — some great, some not — that proved the band as something more than buzz-feeders with a shitty, tragic name. On their new one, Down in Heaven, excuses no longer have to be made; they’ve found their sound, and it’s one of grown-ass men falling shamelessly in and out of love.
The group has cited before the influence of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, specifically when it came to the inspiration for making Wild Onion a very long 16 tracks. That inspiration hasn’t gone away on Down in Heaven, it’s just manifested itself differently. Here, the band has pared down the tracks to a tight 13, each as loose as all the cuts on that infamous Stones album. And while the jangly grooves of the early ‘70s Stones are ever-present, you get the sense that the band has broadened its scope — to the Kinks and their technicolor bass lines, and beyond. The rollicking sing-along “My Boys” could’ve easily been on that band’s self-titled, while “Butterfly”’s “ba-ba-ba-baahhh” refrain is ripped straight from the Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun.”
But their love for honky-tonk rhythms is evident from the start of opener “Walk to the One You Love.” That first single is actually a perfect introduction to the third LP lyrically, too: compare that song’s opening, “I will let you walk to the one you love/ But who is the one you love?/ I would hate to see you walk away/ But I won’t cry or beg for you to stay” with the low-bar opening line of Onion’s “Sloop Jay D,” “You got me feelin’ so lucky and I hope that you fuck me,” and you’ll see that it’s not hyperbole to say they’ve done a little growing up.
“Stain” makes the case that this maturity might’ve been against the band’s will, though, as guitarist Clay Frankel sings, “Can’t help but piss all my youth down the well/ And wave my hand watching it go.” It’s here and on another standout ballad of Frankel’s, “Heavenly Showers,” that the group comes closest to crafting classics, and that’s a weird truth that has held since their beginning. Given the age and partying ways of its members, you wouldn’t expect Twin Peaks’ biggest strength to be sentimentality, and yet, here we are, with a song about stubbornly fighting the regret of a night spent with the wrong girl, or no girl at all: “No, I don’t feel too sad, but I could/ No, I don’t feel too bad now darling, but I sure could/ But I don’t, and you better bet that I won’t.”
These tracks are lyrically potent, sure, but they’re made great by the contributions of the recently-added Colin Croom, whose keys showcase a deep understanding of the Muscle Shoals organ-stab, and on his one vocal spotlight, “Keep It Together,” his pounding piano is the glue for their backyard acid-glam take on “Back in the U.S.S.R.” It’d be tempting to say that Down in Heaven‘s success is mostly due to Croom’s inclusion, but teamwork is Twin Peaks’ biggest asset.
It’s barely believable that the band manage to synthesize so many sounds, especially when four of the members — everyone but drummer Connor Brodner — are writing songs. The aforementioned Frankel, Croom, and James write and sing, but so does Jack Dolan. Without a cheat sheet it gets tough to pinpoint just whose voice is on which song. That could be a slight, but it’s a testament to the mind-meld going on here that the Malkmus-esque mumble of Dolan blends so well with the schoolyard taunts mastered by James and Frankel.
At its core, Down in Heaven is the rare example of a band operating as a band rather than as the foundation for some frontispiece. The easiest modern comparison that comes to mind is Girls (R.I.P.), though Christopher Owens and Chet “JR” White tended to fetishize the hazier side of musical history, especially the ’70s and ’80s. (Felt features prominently on the work of both, most notably here on “Cold Lips.”) And Girls opted to write songs that served as exact analogues to tracks already recorded by other artists (Randy Newman, Deep Purple). Here, Twin Peaks serve song-stews full of all that they love, and while they might fetishize the past, they do so in a way that doesn’t anesthetize their own personality.
And the personality sells it. From the perfectly sardonic album title — you know, down as in sad, or heaven as in hell — to the insistent brattiness of all the best tracks, Down in Heaven is the rare album on which a band has managed to sharpen its craft without losing the edge. It would be temping to claim otherwise — the nature of a ballad is to tease boredom. But that didn’t happen here; what happened is that Twin Peaks have made a case for the old-school, far-flung rock album, contradictions and all. They’re messy but controlled, and in love but too young to give a shit.