Pop music has always been neurotic, its artists maladjusted on some level even if they’re just parroting or cosplaying someone else’s weirdest instincts. And often with that perturbation comes playing and delivery steeped in stress—screams and wails and whispers, skittering arrangements, tortured tunings. The last few years seem to have tallied an uptick in nervy rock, traveling a conduit through both ‘80s post-punk and ‘90s indie and powered by the cold isolation of technology, politics, and global disaster. New and next in this modern canon are Dry Cleaning, a quartet continuing a three-year-long spiral outward (downward?) from South London with the exquisitely moody Stumpwork.
Prior Dry Cleaning releases were centered around lead singer Florence Shaw delivering cut-up and found lyrics in a manner somewhere between the lounge-lizard stylings of Serge Gainsbourg and the knotty narratives of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith. Shaw sought new inspiration in the deaths experienced throughout the band’s extended family following its 2021 debut New Long Leg, in long walks through big English cities, and in improvisation just prior to stepping up to a studio microphone. The results on Stumpwork are fractured fairy tales, glimpses into relationships like driving past so many windows, as comfortable advising to listeners and protagonists “Stay interested in the world around you/Keep the curiosity of a child if you can” (from “Icebergs”) as “You could say I don’t give a fuck, dickface” (from “Kwenchy Kups”).
Shaw’s non sequitur storytelling is made buoyant by her bandmates’ curious and quirky talent. Where her path is labyrinthine, the rest of Dry Cleaning have a clear if complex plan that crosses time and space. Stumpwork starts off leaning into electrified yé-yé like “Gary Ashby,” which might be about a pet turtle. At its heart are a string of songs informed by slowcore and slackercore including breakthrough single “Don’t Press Me,” which for all of its cooing, whistling success still makes one wonder how it might instead sound being bellowed by Kathleen Hanna. And the album rumbles off into the distance on cuts like “Liberty Log” that recall Sonic Youth’s droning noise-pop experiments.
For as dizzying as these progressions sound when written out, and for the dozens of wild instruments ostensibly hidden in the mix, the structure of Stumpwork ends up feeling logical. Everything’s in its right place, including Dry Cleaning here and now, trying to piece together soothing, satisfying music from the shards of a world slowly going mad.
Adam Blyweiss is associate editor of Treble. A graphic designer and design teacher by trade, Adam has written about music since his 1990s college days and been published at MXDWN and e|i magazine. Based in Philadelphia, Adam has also DJ’d for terrestrial and streaming radio from WXPN and WKDU.