Review: Dehd Ushers in an Early Summer Renaissance for Chicago With New Album Poetry

As one of the hardest working and effortlessly talented bands in Chicago, the three-piece Dehd are back with a brand new album Poetry just two short years after their last collection of summery jaunts packaged up all nice and pretty under the name Blue Skies. I make it a point to find and study as many Chicago bands as I can get my ears on but was embarrassingly late to the Dehd party having only heard them for the first time around a year ago. “Bad Love”, the sweet anthemic summer child of Blue Skies was my first foray into the band and as much as I’d like to say it was love at first sight, well, it sadly was not. Don’t get me wrong, I loved “Bad Love” the second I first heard it but nothing else from the band’s catalog scratched that horrendously loveable itch. Seeing that they were releasing a new album in May I went back through their discography to see all the goodies I left behind in favor of listening to “Bad Love” on repeat in the shower.

That classic indie surf sound was all over DEHD, their self-titled debut, and very much continued on their 2019 follow-up Water. Apart from a handful of songs here and there on their those first two records, it wasn’t until their 2020 release Flower Of Devotion that I started to really get it. There was no drastic overhaul in their sound but songs like “Flying”, “Flood”, and “Loner” worked well to emphasize the subtle evolution from a very jangly indie surf rock sound to a more emotionally rich post-punk revival influence on Flower Of Devotion that would continue to their 2022 album Blue Skies, albeit in a bit more mellow way but nevertheless just as evocative and vibrant. The guitars transitioned to a richer, fuller reverberation, the drums picked up a few more acoustic and electronic pieces, and the vocals of singer Emily Kempf started going into many strange new places that added an extra layer of fun to each song.

Photo by Atiba Jefferson

As cohesive, catchy, electrifying, and whimsical as their prior four albums were, there is no doubt in my mind that Dehd have crafted their masterpiece with their aptly named and freshly released fifth studio album Poetry. What was immediately apparent to me on first listen to the several singles released before the full album dropped was how much more instrumentally and sonically rich each song was. I found myself hearing new percussive sounds via some actual drum fills from drummer Eric McGrady on songs like the hard-hitting and dangerously catchy “Mood Ring”, immersive and brimming guitar work smeared across tracks like the tenacious opener “Dog Days”, and even the deeply nostalgic, slacker-esque vocal lines of “Light On” strangely felt like something I’ve never heard from Dehd before, or at least not with as much care and conviction. One thing I love about the band and this new record specifically is how they can bring in so many different sounds and influences into one album and have it sound as cohesive and familial as it does. You wouldn’t think of Dehd as having any relation to country but my personal favorite song on the album, “Hard To Love”, would like to have a word with you about your horse’s extended warranty. The twang is sonically dripping from each syllable sung by singer/guitarist Jason Balla and even glistening like country dewdrops over so much of the guitar all while the drums keep up that classic Dehd post-punk energy that keeps bringing me back.

As the first quarter of the songs rolled by, I couldn’t help but notice that singer Emily Kempf seemed to have a somewhat diminished role vocally on this record than on albums prior. Listening back to an album like Flower Of Devotion, you couldn’t toss a rock into those tracks without hitting an Emily number but on Poetry, it seems like it’s Jason Balla’s turn in the spotlight and he is expectedly shining as bright as ever on this album. “Alien” is a wonderful highlight of Emily’s vocal tenacity as she iconically bears herself clean with the opening line “I’m from another world // I’m not a normal girl”, a lyric I’m sure I’ll be seeing on a good chunk of their merch come November when they headline Thalia Hall. As great as this album is with the increased presence of singer Jason Balla, I will say I missed some of the weird and abnormal vocal deliveries by singer Emily Kempf on past records where she had more of a substantial vocal presence with ample opportunity to get freaky. The song “Knife” which appears closer to the bottom of the tracklist checks a lot of those boxes for me but I mirror society’s consumerist tendencies of always wanting more. More! I want more Emily!

The first half of Poetry is pretty much back-to-back-to-back bangers that include many of the best songs they’ve ever written. They’re all deliriously catchy, overflowing with melodic hooks and choruses, lively drums, dreamy guitars, and beautifully distorted bass lines. The back half takes a bit more attention to detail and finesse to uncover their endearing and enriching qualities but if you’re at all like me, you’ll be grateful you put in the work. Cuts like “Shake” display an unexpected and fiery force and might be Emily Kempf’s best vocal work on the whole album, “Magician” shakes and sways with a sound almost reminiscent of early Maggie Rogers, and “Don’t Look Down” might just be the summery, love-soaked single of the year that never was, a song that will undoubtedly go down as the most underrated on the entire album in years to come.

Lastly, I’d be remiss to not mention the absolutely gorgeous closing track, “Forget”. Capping up their best album to date, Dehd presents us with a truly beautiful four minute wall-of-sound that left me with goosebumps the first time I heard it. Having never heard Dehd experiment this much with sound and production before, I was delightfully surprised hearing the chorus for the first time and immediately thought this might be their most audacious and plentiful closing track to date. Lush arrays of synths and guitars hit you as soon as the chorus drops and teleports you back to your favorite Beach House song or even to Slowdive’s most recent work. I couldn’t (and still can’t) think of a better way to close out the quintessential summer album of 2024.

As great as Poetry is, I still have my qualms and don’t think it’s by any means perfect, not that it is or was ever trying to be. The album is noticeably Dehd's longest effort to date coming in at 41 minutes via 14 songs and it does start to feel that way towards the back half. I’ve listened to the album dozens of times by now and it does get much better on each listen but I still can’t help but feel like it could have been about 10 minutes and/or three songs shorter while still not sacrificing the heart and soul of the album. Songs like “Dist B”, “So Good”, and even “Necklace” to an extent came and went for me with no lasting impact even leaving me somewhat confused on whether I just played a three-minute song or if I dreamt it all up. Still, even at its lowest, Poetry is still a staggering achievement of shimmering post-punk debauchery that will stand for many listeners and fans alike as the perfect summertime escape through both the hellfire and glory that 2024 has in store for us all in the months ahead.

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Lorenzo Zenitsky

Lorenzo Zenitsky is a Chicago-based software engineer, amateur bedroom metal musician, and a semi-frequent drinker of coffee but only if it's iced. If he's not admiring his terrible Simpsons tattoos in a gently cracked mirror, he's usually at a local show vibing to great tunes and abhorrently priced beer. $15?! Get outta here...