One would be hard-pressed to count all the hats Davy Havok has worn in the 20-plus years since his career took off as the frontman of that shape-shifting creature called AFI. From hardcore punk to devil-locked goth to bespoke rock‘n’roll star, Havok has shown a remarkable ability to inhabit every archetype he can dream up, stepping into each with a swagger that carries just a whiff of Bowie’s many reinventions.
Even before he formed the electronic duo Blaqk Audio and the straight edge hardcore group XTRMST (both with AFI guitarist Jade Puget), it seemed as if Havok had manned the mic for a dozen different bands. To see him now, sporting a ridiculous John Waters mustache and fronting the unapologetically nostalgic synthpop group DREAMCAR, is to see a man living the only way he knows how: in the moment, fully committed to an identity that could well change next week.
Halfway between supergroup and side project, DREAMCAR also features the talents of everyone in No Doubt not named Gwen Stefani, and it sure seems as if Tony Kanal, Adrian Young, and Tom Dumont are having a blast making music for Havok to prance and gyrate to. Kanal’s bass line leads the way on the surprisingly buoyant “All of the Dead Girls”, a synthpop anthem that’s a million times more fun than anything on No Doubt’s last effort, 2012’s Push and Shove.
It’s also a million times more derivative and intentionally so. Echoes of Duran Duran, The Cure, Adam Ant, and basically every other chart-topping ‘80s act pop up so frequently in “Dead Girls” that the song can hardly stand on its own two feet, but the result is undeniably, almost criminally catchy. Pair it with visuals that emphasize neon and an album cover that recalls Patrick Nagel’s illustration for Rio, and you’ve more or less got the fuel that makes DREAMCAR’s self-titled debut go vroom.
DREAMCAR is best when it sounds like a karaoke album called Davy Sweats to the ‘80s, and there are plenty of these moments scattered throughout. Lead single “Kill for Candy” proudly waves the flag of New Romanticism, giving us a glimpse into an alternative universe in which Havok was born a decade earlier and fronted A Flock of Seagulls. It suffers from some of the same groan-worthy homonyms you’ll see in AFI lyrics (e.g. “Miss, you misunderstand me”), but it’s also kind of sexy and dangerous when it stops trying to be so darned cute. Similarly, “Born to Lie” steals a bit too much from A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” to really call it good, but Dumont’s stereophonic guitar riff and Young’s air-tight dance beat give it enough oomph to steer it away from self-parody.
Like Havok’s new facial hair, the line between enjoying DREAMCAR and laughing them off as the unserious plaything of four aging rock stars is razor-thin. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the spunky “On the Charts”, which kicks off with a cringe-worthy spoken-word verse that seems like a very bad idea, then unexpectedly morphs into one of the album’s more funktastic jams. Not all of the ideas work, but Kanal’s bass pops like a firecracker, Dumont leans all the way into an epically cheesy guitar solo, and if you squint hard enough. you can see exactly what the band was going for when they decided to embark on this crazy project in the first place. It’s pure escapism — one of the year’s lowest-stake rock records but not necessarily the worse for that distinction.
This is dicey territory for Havok, whose aesthetic feels so meticulously planned out that “low stakes” is bound to be taken as a kind of insult. But it’s not. The singer’s voice has aged well from those days when punk pushed it to the breaking point, and it blends nicely with the atmosphere on tracks like “Slip on the Moon” and the Tears for Fears-esque closer “Show Me Mercy”. The gothier strains in Havok’s lyrics seem to fit better in this setting, too. It’s been harder and harder to take those strains seriously as AFI have grown into … whatever they are now, but DREAMCAR is silly enough as a concept to handle the many excesses of Havok’s personality.
It’s probably no accident that DREAMCAR arrives on the brink of summer, the time of the year when we’re most apt to go back and listen to the music that reminds us of warmer, happier days. This album is a pure nostalgia play, and it’s going to score plenty of airplay on KROQ as a bridge between that station’s modern alt-rock staples and the ‘80s groups that once served as its bread and butter. That means we’ll probably be sick of these songs before long, but give the members of DREAMCAR credit for going back 30-plus years in the past and digging up something fresher — and altogether more welcome — than a new AFI or No Doubt album could ever hope to be in 2017.
Essential Tracks: “All of the Dead Girls”, “On the Charts”, and “Kill for Candy”