Under the spotlight, Jack Antonoff, Sam Dew and Sounwave might not be the biggest artists in the world but behind the scenes they’re titans. As well as fronting Bleachers, Antonoff has written and produced for the likes of Lorde, Taylor Swift, and Lana Del Rey. Songwriter Dew has a similarly stacked CV, including credits for Rihanna, Mary J. Blige, and Swift and Zayn Malik’s Fifty Shades Of Grey collaboration. And then there’s Sounwave, the Oscar-nominated producer, Kendrick Lamar collaborator, and key member of the Top Dawg Entertainment stable.
After meeting individually over the years through running in similar circles within the music business, they’ve now joined forces as Red Hearse – a project that initially began as just a bit of fun, but soon took on a life of its own. Unsurprisingly given the above, the resulting self-titled record is packed with subtle flashes of genius, songs that have the power to consume you for days, and innovative sounds that make for a weird, warped, but totally brilliant listen.
The trio say ‘Red Hearse’ was inspired by each of their hometowns and you can hear the musical characteristics of each location reflected in the record. There’s Chicago soul in Dew’s voice as he effortlessly flies into falsetto and back down again on ‘Half Love’ or in the way he really makes you feel everything he’s singing, whether it’s happy, sad, or in between. Sounwave’s Compton can be heard in the darker, grittier parts of the record, his contributions taking a hammer to the glossy sheen his collaborators lacquer songs in. Music from New Jersey often balances a kind of despondent longing with an underlying optimism and Antonoff adds that to the mix in songs like ‘Born To Bleed’, a track that’s staunch in its defiance, but cut through with love.
Love, and the feelings that go with it, is the main focus of the album (even the red in the name of the record and band could be linked to its subject). There are promises to change and be better on the title track, a song that thrives on a beat like a trampoline bed rapidly expanding and contracting, a bouncy kind of bend and snap. “I’ll dive in it head first/I’ll die riding in a red hearse,” Dew assures, declaring himself all in as the infectious urgency of the melodies and rhythms surrounding him sweeps you off your feet. There’s the desperation of unrequited romance on ‘You Make It Easy’, a funk-flecked chorus whispering, “I’m falling back apart cos of you/Like I tend to,” and there’s complete and total devotion on the aforementioned ‘Born To Bleed’ and the twisted R&B of ‘Honey’. “Whatever you’re serving/That’s whatever I’m having,” Dew purrs over glitching synths. “You got me swerving.”
As you might expect from a group of people who spend a lot of their lives behind a mixing desk, the real magic of ‘Red Hearse’ comes in its production and how it interacts with the lyrics. The songs themselves are great, of course, but its the little moments that lie in the shadows only to grab your ears and scream their presence on your 20th listen that elevate the experience here. In the blindsiding ‘Everybody Wants You’ that comes early on when Dew’s voice is layered to sound like a heavenly choir surrounded by the kind of rising “oohs” that mimic a church congregation springing up at the start of a wedding. Fittingly, the words they cushion could be vows – “I call your name in the pouring rain/I wait outside, even if it takes all night.” On the choppy, brooding ‘Violence’, darkness lifts as Dew sings, “Step out the shadows, my friend”, but descends even heavier when he repeats that line later. And, on ‘Red Hearse’ – a song calling for a do-over in a relationship – a stray voice requesting an overdub lingers in the mix (“Ah, can I punch that last one?”), signifying both a mistake and a desire to correct it.
Whether ‘Red Hearse’ ends up being a one-off collaboration remains to be seen – Antonoff, Dew, and Sounwave are hardly artists twiddling their thumbs and struggling for work, after all. Luckily, if this is all we get from them together, they’ve given us something original and truly special.