December 4, 2023

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The Beths: Expert in a Dying Field Album Review

Only beautiful dreamers prize the amicable breakup. With fuck-yous in short supply, severance goes from a clean break to a wrench complicated by second-guessing and enduring fondness—not to mention the painful awareness that fondness either wasn’t enough, or wasn’t given freely enough when it mattered. The Beths’ third album swims in this swirl of hope and anguish—an emotional postmortem that can be hard enough for the regretful to interest their weary friends in, let alone power the kind of snappy songwriting this band made its name on. But the New Zealanders are in their element at turning these murky ruminations into sterling indie rock, its catchiness inextricable from songwriter Elizabeth Stokes’ almost painfully bright and openhearted lyricism.

On Expert in a Dying Field, the Auckland four-piece are back to full power after 2020’s understated Jump Rope Gazers, though they’ve recalibrated, too. Their 2018 debut Future Me Hates Me was giddy and bristling, of a piece with punk-spirited peers such as Hop Along; Expert is richer and less hurried, brimming with smart power-pop that brings to mind the casual virtuosity of ’90s Aimee Mann and the bonhomie and euphoria of Superchunk and Fountains of Wayne. Like the very best of their kind, Stokes, guitarist Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair, and drummer Tristan Deck make music that has a sugar-rush immediacy and a craftsman-like attention to detail that invites close listening.

In “Best Left,” Stokes regrets picking at her wounds “well past productivity,” and her bandmates’ pristine harmonies buoy her reminder, yelled at the heavens, that “some things are best left to rot”; the furrowed soloing, meanwhile, makes an intrepid lunge for the freedom of leaving it all behind. Their choruses have an anthemic ease: “Don’t cry/I’m on the next flight,” Stokes imagines her ex saying on “Your Side,” elongating the rhymes to bask in the fantasy, and you’re there dreaming right along with her. But at the same time, their arrangements are visceral and complex, as if they had scored the surges of an adrenaline rush. Stokes often forgoes straightforward melodic toplines to scale and dance around the impetuous playing, moving almost as deftly as Life Without Buildings’ Sue Tompkins amid the chaotic noise of “Silence Is Golden.” Although a couple of songs get samey, Expert is relentlessly invigorating and grounded by the clarity of Stokes’ writing.

On the title track, Stokes wrestles with what to do with the once-shared intimacy of a defunct relationship, her now-obscure specialist subject. What to do with the memory of your former partner’s footsteps on the stairs, your nonsensical shared language, your loving months or years-long research project into how to make them laugh so hard they gag? Stokes’s delivery goes from fluttery to frustrated as she realizes she can’t do anything but live with it. “How does it feel to be an expert in a dying field?” she asks bittersweetly one final time as the song thrashes to a close, as if she’s handing out trophies for her graduating class of pyrrhic winners.

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