By all accounts, Drake has a lock on what loneliness means in the twenty-first century (the feeling of being inundated with messages and superficial attempts at connection — and somehow feeling even more isolated because of it), but a twentieth century style of loneliness persists around the globe, from Austin, Texas’s Harlem to London, England’s Let’s Wrestle. And now, Melbourne, Australia’s The Stevens can be counted among those pining in the physical world, on the merits of a new EP that opens with a song called “Alone”: “Every night I lie in bed thinking about you lying in bed / I’ll stay awake, I’ll stay awake, I’ll stay awake,” etc. Those impermeable bodies lying awake, that impermeable distance (the third song is called “Million Miles,” not so cryptically), that loneliness never permeated by even the possibility of an electronic message: It’s also in the way Harlem’s Michael Coomers wrote a love letter but didn’t have a stamp, or the way Let’s Wrestle’s Wesley Patrick Gonzalez can’t even assign a name or features to the girl of his dreams, or the way melodic ambulation ensues without fail.
The Stevens’ loneliness and ambulation lasts six songs and 13 minutes, and the band works fast, quick to set forth and resolve or not resolve their melodic tendencies, quick to betray early Chills and Television Personalities as primary influences. Their songs are what they first claim to be. Songs that build are overrated, anyway. Great music is (for the sake of an argument) horizontal, not vertical, as anyone’s who’s ever heard how much The Wipers’ “Youth of America” accomplishes in its first 40 seconds, or even 12, can attest. So claustrophobic and monumental and pulled along by such a ceaseless rhythm, there’s no place for its chords to expand but outward. Nothing on The Stevens’ EP expands outward with the ambition of “Youth of America,” but “Alone” could be called a miniature version of that song’s prologue: A quick repetition of two guitar notes, lasting seven seconds (the listener will imagine these leading somewhere as blissful or as stale as he sees fit), and then the introduction of a melodically incompatible series of notes from another guitar, suggesting the song’s entire world of beauty and discordance in just a few seconds of juxtaposition. The remaining two minutes become a significant distance to travel.
That efficiency, not just for its own sake, equally suggests a sense of fragility and mortality, and implies the band’s eagerness to document itself before it’s too late. Closing track “Fast Cars,” the EP’s major Dan Treacy moment, has a vocal melody whose sweetness lies in the singer’s awareness that, no matter how meekly and mumblingly he sings the song or onto what degraded materials he records it, the song will outlast him. Part of pining in the physical world is knowing that we’re its most fleeting objects. The fast cars of the lyrics already seem, on first impact, as securely distant from the narrator as the first car Robert Forster sang about on The Go-Betweens’ “Spring Rain.” A mere 13 minutes after the EP’s opening notes and we feel worlds away, sudden experts in the implications of The Stevens’ early loneliness.
Despite the length, there’s enough slight variation in the production of the EP to suggest it spans a number of recording sessions. It has the inherent excitement of the collected, as if to say: Here’s the 13 minutes that changed the world, all in one place. Due to the usual historical accident of not being early adopters of the music they play so well, The Stevens haven’t changed the world, or anyone’s, and their name, sort of a diminutive of The Smiths, but with more syllables, lacks even that name’s limited (but fully exploited!) potential to be imbued with magic, and demands us to pay no special attention. And The Stevens’ music is really too modest to demand otherwise, but the wise listener will choose not to heed such modesty and will find what pleasures it conceals. Thanks are due to the fine blog Wilfully Obscure, which has made the EP available, for now, and which continues the democratic ideal of independent rock by offering a treasure trove of lost sounds by everymen. Too often we get stuck talking about the same few bands, but the self-evident secret about The Stevens is that they’re as good as anyone.