Of all the ’80s indie-underground bands that have reunited in the 2000s—and there have been plenty, including Dinosaur Jr., Pixies and The Replacements, to name a few—The Dream Syndicate’s 2012 resurrection has been among the least heralded, and the most rewarding. Underheralded, probably, because The Dream Syndicate sometimes seemed overlooked during their original incarnation between 1981-89, despite releasing a debut album that would have been genre-defining if anything else in the band’s “Paisley Underground” scene had sounded like it at the time.
At once noisy and sleek, The Days of Wine and Roses, from 1982, was the first of four LPs The Dream Syndicate released back then, and each was considerably different from the one before it. Though it took the reconstituted band five years to release an album after getting back together (with a slightly different lineup), they’ve quickened their pace since then: Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions is The Dream Syndicate’s third album since 2019, and fourth overall since re-forming—equalling their ’80s output.
After 2020’s sprawling and experimental five-track effort The Universe Inside, with songs ranging in length from 7 to 20 minutes, the new album is a return to form. Yet Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions still manages to range far and wide, as if instead of shifting styles from one album to the next, singer Steve Wynn and his bandmates—now officially including keyboardist Chris Cacavas, formerly of ’80s Paisley Underground peers Green on Red—figured they might as well work all of them into a single release. Opening track “Where I’ll Stand” starts with loops of skittering synths, then pivots into big, overdriven guitars that build throughout the song until they become almost monolithic by the end. A couple tracks later, “Beyond Control” projects a sense of foreboding as Wynn intones enigmatic lyrics—“I’m a walking coming attraction / I don’t give a single thing away,” he begins—over the dark chiming of hollow percussion instruments that sound like they’re being played in the wrong order, as a wash of guitars ebbs and flows in the background.
All these years later, there’s no mistaking the Velvet Underground influence of “Hard to Say Goodbye,” where Wynn’s lyrics have a laconic Lou Reed cadence, though the musical accompaniment has a lusher feel, with swirls of woozy guitar. Later, “Lesson Number One” is a hard-charging rocker that shows all the benefits of teaming again with producer John Agnello (The Hold Steady, Dinosaur Jr.). Full of bracing guitars and a driving beat, the song folds in off-kilter violin licks without batting an eye.
The Dream Syndicate’s willingness to roam freely through different sounds has always been of the band’s strongest assets, outweighed only by their ability to make the transitions seem effortless. If the results have tended over the years to confound listeners who wanted more stuff like the previous stuff, maybe Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions represents a kind of truce: The band’s various approaches to these 10 songs mean there’s something here for any Dream Syndicate fan.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.
Revisit The Dream Syndicate’s 2022 Paste session below.