Not Fire is the first album from Berlin-based songwriter Dean Roberts in 12 years, and his comeback arrives during apocalyptic times. It’s not an album about someone who’s found hope or love despite everything; Roberts sounds exhausted, and his album is as ugly and as bleak as life often is. For those who’ve been in the pits and succumbed to self-destructive nihilism, Not Fire is a reminder of how hellish it all can be.
Sonically, Not Fire is murky and battered and melancholy. Guitars clang incessantly, drums lurch without vigor—there’s hardly a moment where one doesn’t feel placed in a barren wasteland, left to wander aimlessly. On “Say After Me,” a melange of noisy guitar strums and plucks constantly ring out without any impression of oncoming closure. In the song’s final passage, Roberts slides his pick down a guitar string, the resulting sound a thunderous roar, the final bellowing of bottled-up feelings. Not Fire can sound a lot like a pained desire for release, a wish to scream into the emptiness like Roberts does on the album cover.
Nothing here feels cathartic, however. If anything, every note just propagates uneasiness, something that’s fiercely evident on the nearly 10-minute centerpiece “Heron.” Reed instruments and wolf-like howls imbue the piece with anxious tension. Frightening as the music may sound, Roberts sings of acceptance (“There is no blistering sun ’cause the summer’s just gone”). The song’s final third is wordless, but you can still sense his mournful presence.
Even when the songs aren’t harrowing, Roberts’ weariness and irascibility are clear. On the bluesy folk song “Paul,” he speaks of the titular person as a thorn in his side—a burdensome figure who’s always there at the worst of times. He concludes with a confession: “I always run into you Paul/And say I’ll call/But I don’t want to.” This longing for solitude becomes an unwelcome reality on “Kids,” where he talks about the crumbling of a long-term relationship. “Would it have changed anything if we’d had kids?” he wonders. You can tell, from his wavering voice, that he doesn’t think so.
Throughout Not Fire, Roberts feels numb. A summation of his downward spiral appears on the title track. “It’s not fire; love is something else” he moans. His voice quivers amidst droning feedback and heaving drums, the song exuding the shut-in mystique of Jandek’s early works. As the song builds, Roberts never finds healing; he only sounds tormented, broken.
There is one hopeful song on Not Fire. With “My Diviner,” Roberts delivers anguished expressions of gratitude. The mythical figure of the title leads him to water in a period of drought, and proves to be a steady light in his life (“You’re not one to quit, that ain’t how you live”). The sweetness is a salve from the misery that looms over everything else. In a time when gods feel ever-absent, when futures seem increasingly dim, “My Diviner” serves as a thoughtful reminder: life’s shittiness is promised, but so is the nourishing comfort that comes when receiving persistent care. It sounds like a call to hold fast and love hard. - Joshua Minsoo Kim