LVL UP – Return to Love
by Sarah Kotowski (Economics), published October 26th 2016
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
If, in about a month or so, the universe conspires against us all and allows for the election of Donald Trump as the next president of this sinking ship of a country, and the new administration rounds up everyone who isn’t a straight white dude and marches us all down to the gates of hell, I will gladly accept my doomed fate, as long as LVL UP’s Return to Love is the last album I listen to as I go.
Coming two years after the sensational Hoodwink’d, Return to Love is LVL UP’s third EP and official debut for Sub Pop. Recording for the first time in a studio that does not also double as their home, LVL UP’s latest 10-song collection boasts cleaner production and more cohesive songwriting. If Hoodwink’d was the manifestation of early-twenties romanticism, Return to Love is a reflection of the quietly painful maturation into one’s post-college years, complete with spats of self-loathing, the dissolution of once poignant relationships, and an inquiry into the higher world around us.
As always, Return to Love is the union of LVL UP’s three principal songwriters, Mike Caridi, Dave Benton and Nick Corbo. Previous themes of mysticism and fantasy are still in play here, with an added spiritual component. The band’s personal grappling with the existence of some ultimate creator weaves consistently through the album, from opener “Hidden Driver” (“And I still think of God in the same way / As the moment in my dreams / When I’m fading away”) to “She Sustains Us” (“How long until I believe?”).
Return to Love not only contends with spiritual beliefs, but also the nature of anger and revenge. On the extremely quotable “Pain,” Caridi imagines the hurt he wishes to inflict on someone who has irreparably damaged a loved one, singing “I hope you’re cold / I hope you grow old / And never find love” until the song ultimately dissolves into chaos. The repeated sentiment is an act of catharsis, of shouting out rage until it becomes almost euphoric and self-affirming.
LVL UP ties it all together with a boldly long anthem, the seven-minute psychedelic jam “Naked in the River With the Creator.” The song combines the mystic, the spiritual, and the pastoral and lays it all over a hypnotic drum line. Here, Corbo details an encounter with some spiritual entity, perhaps a divine creator or the ghost of someone he once knew. At its climax, he sings “Life rose from the water / And ascended to the ground / To the sky / To the night / And back down.” The effect is transcendent, as if the listeners themselves are “Spreading out forth from the night / And then climbing to the Spirit heading north.
” Despite its length, “Naked in the River With the Creator” is a stunning, exuberant triumph of a closing song.
Return to Love is a major success for LVL UP, solidifying the past six or seven years of their existence into a platform of fuzzy, guitar-fueled pop that oscillates seamlessly between yearning despair and heady existentialism.
Recommended Tracks: “The Closing Door,” “Pain,” “Naked in the River With the Creator”