You can’t get Deeper if you’re standing still. That’s intentional, says the Chicago quartet’s Nic Gohl. “Does it feel good when you’re listening to this song? Does your body want to move with it?” These are the questions he asked himself as he and bandmates Shiraz Bhatti, Drew McBride, and Kevin Fairbairn were writing and recording Careful!, their third record and Sub Pop debut. “I wanted these to be interesting songs, but in a way where a two-year-old would vibe out to it,” Gohl adds. “It’s pop music, basically.”
That “basically” qualifier is working pretty hard, as fans of 2020’s Auto-Pain might suppose. Auto-Pain was an album of thick brutalist architecture, full of straight lines and sharp angles, making hard shapes strong enough to carry a heavy thematic burden. On Careful!, they’re reshaping the facades and splashing color, not reimagining their sound so much as testing its limits. There are synth experiments, there are moments of nauseatingly powerful darkwave and coldbeat. There are massive rock’n’roll songs that you can imagine 10,000 people singing along to in some beautiful outdoor setting. There is a remarkably moving love song. Is there pop? There’s some pop, yes, a wiry bit of Cars-esque neon called “Everynight.” Look around the right corners, and you might see some of the old buildings peeking through, too, but in this context—on a song like “Sub,” say, a song that began life as a slow and dark prog jam but is now an elegantly cresting wave of post-punk—they feel more sophisticated, lit up in the cold, bright glow of Television.
Auto-Pain was released in March 2020, which means Deeper wasn’t able to play their new album live for nearly a year and a half. “It was hard living in the vacuum of depending on Spotify numbers to quantify what your music means to other people,” McBride says. Nature abhors a vacuum, though, and the band rushed to fill not only their empty time but the suddenly empty idea of what, exactly, their identity was. “Isolated by ourselves, we were like, ‘What is Deeper?’” Bhatti says. “We’ve always talked about how we didn’t want to stay in one genre as a band,” Gohl says, and absent any audience expectations, they gave themselves the freedom to tinker.
“One vibe I thought about a lot was Bowie’s most coked-out productions,” Gohl says. If you want to, you can hear echoes of Low in the snapping rhythm and gray-sky synths of “Tele,” but you can also hear a bit of Auto-Pain in the nailed-in, stippling lines being spit out by Bhatti’s drum programming and McBride’s bass. “Fame” seems to stumble together and nearly fall apart, the dialed-up noise making the beat feel maniacal and a little invincible, the whole thing a series of short, snipped, autonomous gestures that are by now Deeper’s trademark.
“Build a Bridge” pushes in the opposite direction, using a prickly guitar line to launch into big, smeary art-pop, its emotional palette clear, well-defined, and easy to latch onto. On “Sub,” Gohl sings above and below the melody like Ian McCulloch, bellowing and wondering and ruminating and rounding into swaggering confidence that the band rises to meet. It’s festival headliner music that still feels like it was written in a garage.
The album’s title, exclamation point, and all come from the song “Airplane Air,” and it’s echoed in the album’s final song, “Pressure,” a song Gohl wrote for his wife and longtime partner. “Be safe,” he sings, “I will need you around.” It’s a song that sounds like nothing else in their catalog—ringing harmonics, chiming chords, vocal harmonies—but the sense of interdependence is near the center of Deeper’s music, from the way Gohl and Fairbairn’s guitars jigsaw together and interlock with Bhatti’s drum patterns and McBride’s bass to the lyrical vulnerability at the album’s core. That sense of mutuality makes this restlessly curious, stylistically broad album feels like the most coherent portrait of who Deeper is. Or, as McBride ultimately frames it, “Careful! is about looking out for one another.”