La Dispute's 'Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair' is Still Perfect, Darling
Ten years on from its release, we look back at an album that remains treasured by fans, unsung by critics, and unexpectedly subversive within hardcore.
'Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair' artwork
In Japanese legend, the stars Vega and Altair represent Orihime and Hikoboshi. The former a celestial goddess, the latter a farm boy – the pair fall so deeply in love that they neglect their duties and are confined to opposite sides of the galaxy, divided by a river of stars (the Milky Way). Once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, a bridge of magpies forms across the river and the two lovers are reunited. It’s said that if it rains on that day, the magpies will not come and they will have to wait another year to see each other.
There are several variations of this story in both Japanese and Chinese lore, but it is at its core a particularly tragic allegory of the ways in which relationships can be disrupted by distance and obstacles. And it’s this allegory that provides the narrative framework for La Dispute’s first album, Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair – one of the most unique and critically unsung post-hardcore albums of the last two decades.
Released ten years ago this month, Somewhere... is difficult to categorise. La Dispute are generally aligned with the same late-00s wave of post-hardcore that also gave rise to bands like Touché Amore, Defeater and Pianos Become the Teeth, but they always lay a little further left of field. Somewhere... counts jazz, blues, spoken word, screamo, prog rock and metalcore among its influences, but it’s not really an album you’d recommend to someone based on their interest in any of those genres. Rather, the album – and this is true of all La Dispute’s releases – has a certain set of sensibilities that you either get on with or you don’t. Those that don’t, really don’t. And those that do are familiar with every intake of breath on “The Last Lost Continent” – the album’s 12-minute closing epic about building something positive out of suffering.
To give you an idea of what that sensibility is, here are some facts: La Dispute are named after an 18th century French play about two orphans raised in isolation. Across the album’s 51 minutes and 38 seconds, vocalist Jordan Dreyer says the word “darling” almost as many times as Rose says “Jack” in Titanic (there’s a drinking game about it, if you dare). I – with my Sun in Cancer and Venus in Leo – kept it on rotation alongside Drake’s Take Care for several months straight following the demise of a long-term relationship with someone I met on my English Literature course. Simply put: it’s a melodramatic album for melodramatic people. Or a romantic album for romantic people, depending on how you look at it.
Somewhere... was largely ignored by the music press at the time – as were most releases by that particular set of post-hardcore bands – but it’s one of those albums that fans will clutch to their chests until they’re two feet in the grave. While their peers would later find themselves championed by the likes of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, however, La Dispute’s absence from certain areas of criticism is marked. “Acquired taste” and “not for everyone” are phrases that tend to come up a lot – and while they may be true, it’s a question of aesthetics in the end.
Touché Amore’s vocalist, Jeremy Bolm, first heard La Dispute after being given a stack of releases from California-based indie label No Sleep Records – who released Touché Amore’s demo and were home to La Dispute until 2011. “I remember having a quick ‘oh it’s like mewithoutYou but played at 45rpm but with some wild world music sounding beats’ – I definitely dug it, but didn’t get it fully,” he recalls, speaking for this piece. “I think I was quick to judge their sound and pass it off as this thing or that.”
Exploring similar subject matters of loss and disconnection with a similar outlook, La Dispute and Touché Amore now have a rich collaborative history, but it took seeing them play live for things to properly fall into place. “Some bands you see for the first time and you become overwhelmed with their importance no matter how big or small,” Jeremy says. “La Dispute floored me and my band members in such a way that I can still mentally revisit that show in my head and play it out perfectly. Now that we’ve toured together, made music together, I listen to that album and still very much appreciate the angst of it. It sounds like a band very hungry who are wearing each members influences in their playing.”
Somewhere... is unapologetically earnest. On a fundamental level it combines spoken word and screamo – two forms of expression that, even in isolation, are almost impossible to bring up in conversation without someone taking the piss. It’s unsurprising that many of the criticisms levelled at it – the melodrama, the occasionally anachronistic choice of words, the vulnerability – are objections to qualities usually viewed being traditionally feminine in nature. Qualities often seen as “embarrassing” because they feel so unfiltered even though they inherently aren’t, like a bunch of 2am tweets after an argument. The album takes a very unabashed, very unbridled approach to expression that borders on the hysterical. And while their wholehearted sobriety may have more in common with the current climate than it did in 2008, the album is and always has been at odds with the lineage of hardcore that it draws from. For the most part, hardcore is a genre that favours brevity and repetition, regardless of how poetic the content is. Lyrically, Somewhere... has more in common with rappers like Atmosphere or spoken word artists like Levi the Poet than anything in its own world.
“I’m a hardcore kid at heart, but the genre doesn’t often explore subject matters outside extremely common and overused themes,” says Jeremy, “Every now and again a band comes along that touches on things that others don’t or explores ideas in new ways.”
As a lyricist and vocalist, Jordan Dreyer takes his cues from literature more than anywhere else; Vonnegut, Hemingway, Poe and Joan Didion, among others, have made their impression on his feel for character and detail. In addition to his speak-shouting delivery and the band’s Here, Hear EPs in which Dreyer reads bits of pre-existing poetry over instrumentals, you don’t have to look far to note Somewhere...'s literary touchstones. The title of opening track “Such Small Hands” is a reference to the E.E. Cummings poem “Somewhere I Have Never Travelled, Never Beyond”.
When I interviewed Dreyer back in 2015, he described hardcore as “an underrated medium for literature” because “it has its own set of rules and restrictions that other places don’t.” He went on to explain that his favourite writer is Don DeLillo for reasons beyond narrative. “Even if I don’t find the story particularly compelling, the rewarding part of the interaction for me is how well he arranges words and syllables, and I think that I’ve tried as I’ve gotten older to find that same reward in my own work. The added element is that you have to do it in a way that tells a story first, that works with the music, and operates on a very specific canvas.”
Somewhere... is by no means the first album to blend punk with poetry – that’s been happening since Patti Smith moved to New York City with Arthur Rimbaud whispering in one ear and Bob Dylan in the other – but that doesn’t make it any less of an outlier, or any less impressive.
“Jordan is certainly an anomaly,” Jeremy adds, “He and I have such different approaches but similar struggles, if that makes sense. I go for the ‘less is more’ approach while that man writes novels that take you in so many different places. The only lyricist I can place him with would be John K. Samson of The Weakerthans / ex-Propagandhi in their ways of painting you pictures in songs with such precision.”
As is often the case with derided artists, La Dispute have an incredibly dedicated fanbase. The intensity of which is captured in their 2015 documentary, Tiny Dots, which features several interviews with fans outside shows in different cities claiming the band had “saved their life”. This is often the case with artists whose lyrics lay bare things that can be incredibly difficult to express out of fear of ridicule – especially when it’s a male vocalist, whose affected manner of emoting is still, sadly, considered subversive. It’s why early Bright Eyes, or My Chemical Romance, or The 1975 tend to split people down the middle. In their own ways, they each have just the right level of flamboyance to captivate one half of the room on a profound level while alienating the other. Despite pop’s recent graduation into critical territory, it still takes more convincing for artists linked to fandom culture to be taken as seriously as those whose aesthetic isn't dismissed as ‘for teenagers’. The same is true of punk and hardcore, perhaps even more so due to their difficulty accepting anything that operates outside a particular brand of male aggression.
La Dispute’s later albums, Wildlife and Rooms of the House, are less contested contributions to modern hardcore. One is much harsher and darker, while the other is more gentle and melodic. Both see Dreyer journey straying away from himself and deeper into fiction. Their equally tragic narratives document the stories of other people – real or fictionalised – through an empathetic narrative lens. They deal with concrete issues, like illness or divorce, rather than the wilder, more shapeless throes of heartbreak. Still, Somewhere... captures the heartbreak as deftly as a 19th century novel – consuming, dramatic, a bit ridiculous. It’s even got pathetic fallacies. It provides the foundation for a remarkably ambitious band that, however you feel about them, sound like nothing and no one else.
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A tenth anniversary edition of Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair is now available through No Sleep Records.