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There have been rumblings for years amongst ardent fans about Versus working on a sci-fi concept album. The band had essentially disappeared from the public eye since releasing 2010’s On the Ones and Threes, until the excellent Ex Nihilo EP materialized in May on a new label, Ernest Jenning Record Co. (having previously worked with Teen-beat, Caroline, and Merge), unveiling the nascent stages of this direction. Now, the apocrypha has officially been dispelled with the announcement of a new LP, Ex Voto, to be released in August, also on EJRC. A discussion with the band’s frontman Richard Baluyut reveals allusions to science fiction and spirituality, equally arcane and universal.
It is evident immediately that the two records complement one another thematically, and were culled from the same sessions, recorded by Ian James and mixed by Ray Ketchem. “’Ex Voto,’ (meaning ‘from a vow’) addresses divinity, and creation,” explains Baluyut, "and was inspired by Mexican devotional paintings. They often depict catastrophe, and God’s role in and out of catastrophe." He wrily adds, "But I imagined God being alien...which might be true, in a Starman-sort of way… Ancient Aliens and all that.”
Lead single “Mummified” exhibits the trademarks of classic Versus, with Baluyut and bassist/vocalist Fontaine Toups swapping perspectives of love and loss over the dual serrated guitar slash of Richard and brother James, while the third Baluyut, Edward, adds supple, visceral drum fills. But it breaks new ground for the band via the gravitas of its subject matter. “It’s about becoming eternal,” says Richard cryptically. Yet the unidentified crackling dialogue between a doomed couple buried in the mix suggests a more complex subtext, worlds removed from the sing-song “failed apartments” of Two Cents Plus Tax's "Dumb Fun" from their earlier years, instead swapping in a blurry quandary, a reality where abstraction is the rule and absolutes don't exist. It’s a world in which time and distance are warped, where rules must be rewritten, where new lives can be imagined, where transcendent spirituality can triumph over secular ennui.
The relationship fears evinced on a Versus classic such as “Jealous,” from 1996’s Secret Swingers, in which Baluyut urges a disenchanted lover to “please come home” and “disconnect the phone” are antiquated here, as the band has learned that there are no more easy answers. Versus always were a band that excavated painful intimacies, and they're still fixated on the elusive, ineluctable nature of love, and how cruelly it can be taken away in a world where individuals control so little. But now, Versus have raised the stakes considerably.
“A lot of the songs are about escape, maybe to another dimension or an alternate universe,” Richard concedes. He singles out “Moon Palace” in which Toups sings “I wanted something more/What's on the other side of the door?," the existential lyrics belying the song’s saccharine melody. “University” offers the hushed assurance that “paradise [was] lost but we are alive,” echoing Richard’s escape trope. “Atmosphere” has Toups desperately pleading “Did you find the clue I left for you?/Will you realize it was all true?” before whispering with disarming intimacy, “Have you ever felt that way before?/Someone just behind your door?”
The electro-ballad “Baby Green” pairs with “Mummified” at the album’s center and emotional fulcrum, and is the crown jewel, one of the finest songs the band have ever written. Inspired by the Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, “the plot device is the rogue asteroid destroying your world,” Richard explains, "‘swallow[ing] the earth and everything in it.’ But in the end it's okay, because she has to live her own life, and learn by living, without you or anyone. No matter how painful it is to lose her, her journey, happy or tragic, will be a beautiful one. And I'd wait forever for another glimpse of that beauty.” This newfound faith updates the disenchanted darkness that’s long imbued Versus’ music, an unexpected deluge of oxytocin from a man who in 2010 said, “Well I’m just a dark person, and I get more nihilistic the older I get.”
That may still be the case, but the nihilism is leavened now by an element of hope, more urgent than ever in these dark times. Versus haven’t gone shiny and happy on us, but they’ve matured and embraced themes of mortality and the passage of time with resigned dignity. Creation, the concept of god, and human-ness are all invoked on the metronomic, pulsating track “Re-Animator,” perhaps the most unabashed song the band have ever written, and an appropriate finale to an exhilarating journey.
“Does the story end the way you want it to?,” Baluyut asks on Ex Voto’s opening volley “Gravity,” easily the most anthemic song on the album. It’s also the record’s leitmotif, as there aren’t any simple answers offered here. Yet, in their embrace of spirituality, compassion, and exploration, Versus have never sounded so comfortable on their strange, beautiful, and uncertain path. And nearly 30 years since their inception, they’ve provided us with an album that could just as easily serve as an entry point into their beguiling world, or a brand new favorite for a long-time fan on the remarkable achievement they’ve offered us on Ex Voto.
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