It would have been a prescient soul who foretold that [a]Dum Dum Girls[/a] would unwittingly foreshadow their own future with a throwaway cover of a track originally penned by a moody, and decidedly scuzz-free, son of Salford. Frontwoman Dee Dee Penny, better known for lyrical fripperies about schoolyard crushes, was the last person we’d expect to follow in the maudlin tread of [a]Morrissey[/a], when she proffered her own take on ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, his paean to eternal loneliness.
Admittedly, their rickety rendition of [a]The Smiths[/a]’ classic came smothered with their customary layer of thick, sludgy guitars and treacly girl-group harmonies. But when Dee Dee’s mother was diagnosed with, and later succumbed to, a terminal illness during the making of [a]Dum Dum Girls[/a]’ second album, one suspects Moz’s heartbroken ruminations suddenly assumed rather more pertinence. ‘Only In Dreams’, then, is Dee Dee’s own stab at lovelorn mourning – and while a grisly backstory doth not always a masterpiece make, the album’s finest moments come when she takes a Misery-sized sledgehammer to the youthful irreverence of yore and reduces it to rubble. The sonic skeleton of debut ‘I Will Be’ remains largely intact, but now it’s fleshed out with a newfound heart-trodden heft.
So while ‘Bedroom Eyes’ still comes with a C86-indebted jangle, there’s nothing breezy about her fretful obsession with an estranged lover, or her angsty yelp of “The sunrise creeps, but I don’t care/ There’s no hope for any sleep if you’re not here”. Likewise, the ’60s dream-pop arrangements of ‘Teardrops On My Pillow’ sound as honeyed as ever, but belie a more anguished state of skulking solitude, in which Dee Dee is confronted with only empty memories of a former life and “nothing in its place”. There’s a hankering for the past that runs throughout ‘Only In Dreams’, remnants of a former life such as the “necklace that you used to wear” and “bed where you used to sleep” on ‘Wasted Away’. That such hopelessness is buoyed by a smooth, rockabilly groove makes it oddly affecting.
Nowhere is this newfound tenderness more dazzling than ‘Coming Down’, a red-eyed ballad with giant scrapes of spangled guitar and 21-gun salute drums. Channelling [a]Yeah Yeah Yeahs[/a] at their most swoonsome, it’s a velvety ode to the crushing realisation of a love affair soured, Dee Dee lamenting: “I close my eyes to conjure up something/But it’s just a faint taste in my mouth”. And only the most stony-hearted customer could fail to be seduced by her bitter rejoinder of “Have you ever had a real heart?/I don’t think you’d know where to start”, neatly summarising how it feels to have your heart trampled on by an insouciant paramour.
If there is a quibble to be had, it’s that the brief sojourns into nonchalance, such as ‘Caught In One’, seem all the more trite for rubbing shoulders with such genuine fist-in-mouth emoting elsewhere. And while the likes of, say, [a]Blondie[/a] could skirt from one frenzied state to another without missing a beat, it takes a Debbie Harry-sized level of brilliance to do so. Dee Dee’s transitions, such as the bipolar switch between ‘Bedroom Eyes’ and the throwaway ‘Just A Creep’, are decidedly more clunky.
Yet all is forgiven on swansong ‘Hold Your Hand’ as the fuzz is dispersed by ringing, shimmering chords and Dee Dee sighs, “From dreams you wake to shock/To find it’s true”, nailing that feeling of universal fear that’s gripped us all at some point, when you open your bleary eyes, forgetting what kept you tossing and turning all night, before being sucker-punched in the gut by reality. When [a]Dum Dum Girls[/a] eschew blithe posturing in favour of lifting the lid on moments like those, then the pleasure and the privilege are all ours.