Desaparecidos - Payola

by Dominic Woodcock

Desaparecidos reunited in 2012 after a decade that saw frontman Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes break out onto the indie music scene. I won’t delve too far into the band’s original run because I already did that in my column but suffice it to say that their first album is a masterpiece of political punk. Consequently, its fans rejoiced at the thought of Oberst returning to this long-forgotten project. Three years later, and thirteen years after their debut, Desaparecidos have come out with Payola, their second album.

When the album was first announced, it was disheartening to see that half its songs had already been released. Six of the fourteen tracks that make up Payola dropped as a series of singles throughout 2012 and 2013. The fact that they’ve wound up on this record immediately suggested laziness on the band’s part, or even worse, a lack of new ideas. Consequently, what follows is what you might expect: an album devoid of new ideas and whose highlights have already been heard.

Backsell and MariKKKopa, the first tracks released by the band after their reunion, are still their best since 2002. Instrumentally, MariKKKopa is dynamic with a slowly building verse and a huge chorus defined by its knocking snare drum. Backsell, on the other hand, sees Oberst delivering ferocious vocals as he rails against the music industry. Ultimately both tracks have sing-along choruses and tons of lyrical wit. Although their political message is important to them, the music is the bottom line. Who cares about a political agenda if the songs aren’t any good?

If we were to visualise the album in terms of quality as a series of peaks and troughs, Backsell and MariKKKopa would be skyscrapers while tracks like Golden Parachutes and Radicalized would be deep ocean trenches. At numbers four and five on the track listing, these are the first new tracks I heard on the album and they were immediately disappointing. Golden Parachutes is offensively boring while Radicalized barely has a semblance of melody. Desaparecidos’ music is essentially pop-punk but without catchy hooks or great production; these tracks are bland. Oberst’s vocals even sound overstretched on Radicalized, as though screaming its chorus puts a lot more strain on his vocal chords than it did when he was twenty-two.

With insipid moments like this peppering the album, older tracks such as The Left Is Right and Anonymous are brought into a new light. When they first dropped as a pair in 2013, they seemed to signal the band losing its edge but here they are some of the better material. If that sounds like a compliment, it’s not much of one. The Left Is Right exemplifies the band’s laziness in compiling this album. On top of the jarringly unsubtle nature of its lyrics such as, “If one must die to save the ninety-nine, maybe it’s justified / The Left is right”, the reference to the Occupy movement in that line is two years out of date.

Towards the end of the album, tracks such as Search The Searches (about the NSA) and Von Maur Massacre mark a slight improvement in terms of quality. However, this is marginal because it is really only certain elements of these tracks which stand out: a riff here and a melody there. Of the new tracks, promotional single City On The Hill is the clear highlight. Melodically, its chorus recalls Blink-182’s poppy take on the genre while its riff and “oh-oh oh-oh” vocal refrain give the song its own personality against the backdrop of uninspired song-writing.

Although this album is offensively uninteresting at its worst, it is merely unoriginal and nondescript for the most part. Its unmatched highs came out three years ago and are too few and far between to really recommend this album. If you want to hear two albums worth of fun political punk by Desaparecidos, listen to Read Music / Speak Spanish twice.