Badlands is the third album from singer/songwriter Alex Zhung Hai, aka Dirty Beaches. The Vancouver by-way-of China singer shows an amazing amount of talent on Badlands, crafting songs with an outdated sound, but with the warmth and earnestness of timeless music. Whereas plenty of albums drown under the weight of being recorded on decades old technology in the artist’s basement, Badlands’ rusty maneuvering makes the album feel more like a lost relic of the past instead of an underachieving output.
And it’s not just the instruments that crackle on the record, Hai’s perfectly timed falsetto and sputtering vocals give the album a voice that seems honest in its delivery and haunting in its execution. “Sweet 17,” the album’s third track, sounds like a bootleg of The Beatles playing The Cavern Club. It’s an upbeat percussion track highlighted by cymbal taps and Hai screaming “Sweet 17” in rhythm. Not quite pop, not quite grunge or folk, Hai’s hybrid mix of infectious swing and echoing guitar makes the first half of Badlands exciting and refreshing.
Flip the record over and you’ll discover Dirty Beaches in a more vulnerable and honest setting. “True Blue” leads the B side in a cinematic and sorrowful movement. “I’ll walk along these streets / Until I have you in my arms” sings Hai, “I just want you to know / That my heart will always be true.” It’s a sentiment we’re all familiar with, certainly, but it is Hai who has encapsulated that image so perfectly. “True Blue” seems as lost and wandering as its protagonist, traveling awkwardly down a dark alley in the middle of the night, stepping in pace to the sound of Orbison’s guitar. We all know what it is like to perpetuate sadness, to wallow merely in the fact that we hurt, and Hai effortlessly catalogues that experience on “True Blue,” making it one of Badlands’ best takes.
“Lord Knows Best,” the album’s stand-out single, is possibly the most heart wrenching track I’ve ever heard. Zhung Hai’s vocals echo beautifully as he sings “The lord knows best / That I don’t give a damn about anyone / But you.” All the while piano keys are looped and drums are sparsely struck, creating an atmosphere that is both haunting yet moving. Simply put, “Lord Knows Best” is an immensely powerful track. Beautiful because of its misery, yet lonely because of its desperation.
At only eight tracks, Badlands is a short album, but it packs plenty of ideas into its brevity. Side A consists of mostly free form pop music, while Side B is populated with slower and more personal tracks, creating a well rounded album that will appeal to almost anybody. If you don’t listen to it now, you’ll at least hear me blasting “Lord Knows Best” as the first song at my wedding.