Sleigh Bells' second album, Reign of Terror, didn't get much attention this year after its initial wave of release-week hype, but it should have. Denser and more obtuse than the band's breakthrough record, Treats, too many people stopped at the bloody-Keds suburban-macabre imagery and failed to see the big, bleeding heart inside.
The record starts out with a bombastic intro called "True Shred Guitar," which serves as a manifesto for their sound: "Push it, push it, push it," chants Alexis Krauss, as whammy-bar guitar bends swoop overhead. If you're familiar with Treats, this might lead you to think you're going to get a continuation of the swagger and thunder that made their debut so great. And you might continue to think so the first few dozen times you listen to the next song, "Born to Lose." The hammering kick drum and guitar swells are a little different from the in-the-pocket beats and spare riffs of something like "Crown on the Ground," but it still seems to aspire to the same mode of triumphal gigantism.
Then, somewhere down the line, you notice the lyrics and how incredibly sad they are. "Heard you say / suicide / in your sleep / Just get on with it," Krauss sings. "Born to Lose" is another way of saying "loser," and it has a different inflection than when it crops up in other songs. For Beck, it was ironic, an eye-roll at the frequency with which that charge was lobbed at his tribe. For Titus Andronicus, chanting, "You will always be a loser" was a way of reclaiming and celebrating the charge. But for Sleigh Bells, it's an admission, a giving-in. "Just get on with it," she says, making the suggestion sound pretty enticing.
The album was a struggle with that possibility, seesawing from the pep talks of "Comeback Kid" and "Never Say Die" to the resignation of "D.O.A." ("You ran out of time") and "Leader of the Pack," which seems to reference the motorcycle death of guitarist Derek E. Miller's father. When defiance comes, it's still couched in death, as on "Demons" — "And when I die, hang me high" — a mirror to "Born" and its suicidal ideation ("Will you hang like the moon from a rope in your room?").
What relief there is comes from a retreat into the past, which Miller's discussed as an inspiration for the album. From "Crush" to the vision of romance in "You Lost Me" ("Teenage metalheads / in your denim vests / cause you're holding hands / through your favorite bands"), it's '80s hard rock as salvation, pop-metal as a refuge.
In my own darker moments this year, I've returned to "Born to Lose" with a surprising frequency. This is surprising mainly because I normally prefer happy music when I'm feeling down. But something about its mix of sweetness and sadness resonates with my mood, and it always turns out to be what I'm looking for. I know people for whom the Titus Andronicus version of loserdom is an effective shield, but for me, the idea of being recognized as a failure is precisely the terror that creeps up, demanding distraction. The technique of damning yourself before the world can is something I'm already doing, and that's kind of the problem. "Born to Lose" makes it sound not like failure would be noble, but that it would be peaceful — a slow, warm drip of satiety. Krauss plays the tough-love guardian, beckoning but taunting, leaving the choice up to you but allowing you to be in the moment with that feeling of calm intact, to live as if you've already let go.
Judas Priest's music was memorably accused of being responsible for the 1985 suicides of two teenage boys, which is both ridiculous on its face and nonsensical thematically, since Judas Priest didn't promise any kind of peace. They offered a rockin' good time, and some aggression, but no respite, no solution that death could facilitate. On Reign of Terror, Sleigh Bells dips into death and back out again, envisioning their end and its impact. With its wash of sound and overwhelming loudness, it becomes as much of a death-drone as Swans' bleak The Seer but is less certain of whether it wants to land in the dark or struggle back into the light. It ends on an ambiguous note: "Remember who you are," Krauss sings definitively, her voice echoing off, solo, as the album comes to a close. But who is that, exactly?
Mike Barthel is a PhD student in the communication department at the University of Washington, and a writer for Salon, The Awl, and The Atlantic.