Seattle dance punk band The Gods Themselves (TGT) have always had a poppy new wave bent–an increasingly aggressive flirtation that blossomed into a love affair flush with synths on their 2018 EP, Glamour & Grime. With the release of their fourth full-length album, New Excuse, they’re making more and more serious commitments to that throwback sound, but it mostly serves as a slicker, shinier box for the same slyly sensual grooves. Yes, it’s true–they’ve held onto that romantic spark.
Part of the newfound polish comes from co-production by Stephen Hague, who’s likely best known for his work with Pet Shop Boys in the 80s. He brings the mixes a new level of cohesion, but his greatest influence may just be helping The Gods Themselves sound more like their best selves; in interviews, the band has described the way the partnership pushed them to a higher level of perfectionism in their writing and arrangements. They put their best foot forward by opening the album with its title track–and most surefire earworm–“New Excuse.”
More than ever, Astra Elane and Dustin Patterson’s dual vocals give the project a fresh, dynamic edge. It’s what I imagine Win and Régine were going for on Everything Now, only much more fun. “New Excuse” even serves up a similar social critique, but with a colossal pop vocal hook that revels in its wrongheadedness with snarky abandon. Their style teeters right on the edge of camp in the pattern of greats like Oingo Boingo and the B-52’s.
It’s a sound based on nostalgia, but I wouldn’t call it retrowave per se, if only because it goes lighter on the synths and heavier on Elane’s kickass funk guitar (thank The Gods Themselves). She hits especially hard on “Saved”–think Nile Rodgers by way of Let’s Dance, drenched in swirling chorus effects. She contributes all kinds of expressive textures, with long, slow glides under Patterson’s wail on “Walls” and morse-code bursts on “Subliminal Message.” The more electronic stuff does its best work as an accent, as on the 808 intro of “Talking” and the keyboard pulses that punctuate “Driving.”
But while TGT aren’t bound by the codified sounds of retrowave, they are susceptible to its cliches. “Mixtape,” with its format fetishizing, falls a little flat; beyond the rewinding metaphor, TGT just don’t bring a lot to that microgenre of music about better times and cassettes. On the other hand, a track like “Driving” absolutely nails a familiar songwriting trope. It takes a sketchy story about a fateful car trip and fills it with a fine-tuned sense of impending doom, with a nervous refrain and an unstoppable rolling bass.
The creeping sense of darkness filters through to the album closer, the techno-spiritually sinister “Magick.” It’s a striking, apocalyptic vibe that makes you wonder just what grim price they had to pay in order to wring so much new energy and blood out of the far-overdone field of 80s nostalgia (what hath The Gods Themselves wrought?). Best to start planning for when it catches up with you, but TGT don’t look to be running out of road anytime soon.