Four years following the release of Escape From Evil, Baltimore indie duo Lower Dens is gearing up for its next era with follow-up The Competition set to drop on Sept. 6 via Ribbon Music. On the politically-tinged set, the band — comprised of vocalist Jana Hunter and drummer Nate Nelson — put their self-described “resistance pop” to good work, as showcased by the title — a nod to capitalism — and early singles like “I Drive” — an ode to leaving behind one’s blood line for one’s chosen, “real family” — and “Young Republicans,” which is a bit more self-explanatory (“We never asked to be this way / Born without souls or blood or skin / We’re young republicans.”)
The latter cut had a polarizing response from radio, and was even blacklisted by a “handful” of programmers, according to the band’s label. “This song conveys a central narrative to the forthcoming album: Jana Hunter’s observations on the dangers of competition impressed upon us via social networks, the workplace, media, politics, lifestyle choices — seemingly everything,” they wrote. “The song tells the story of a self-appointed group of elitists who are so threatened, so repulsed, so conflicted by people different from themselves that they don’t know how to interact except to consume them. Extreme themes! Delivered with big hooks! What more could you ask?”
Hunter called the blacklisting “hilarious and insane” on Twitter: “So much horror and misery in our society has its roots in the actions of wealthy, endlessly privileged people who can not save themselves. It’s funny to me in a sick kind of way that they’ve co-opted the language of victims, and somehow believe themselves violated by others’ desire to be let alone and live in peace.”
For Billboard’s Summer of Pride, Hunter — who identifies as trans and prefers he/him pronouns — crafted an exclusive playlist that details the songs that helped him combat isolation growing up, including cuts by The Smiths, Komeda, Beach House, Syd Barrett and more.
“The issues that have shaped my life, for better or for worse, have to do with coming from a family and a culture that totally bought into this competitive mindset,” says Hunter. “I was wild and in a lot of pain as a kid; home life was very bleak, and pop songs were a guaranteed escape to a mental space where beauty, wonder, and love were possible. I wanted to write songs that might have the potential to do that.”
Hunter knows isolation well. Growing up, the singer was taught about homosexuality as “an unforgivable sin,” while simultaneously left concerned by his own gender identify. “We never talked about transgender people in my family, my (catholic) church, or my school,” Hunter adds. “But from a very early age, I knew I was a boy, and then quickly was put in my place so to speak.”
Representation didn’t exist for him locally, either. “I didn’t know other people like me existed, and I was taught that I was a lone aberration.” Thus began a level of “exceptional denial” for the artist. “I accepted that I was a girl, and that I didn’t know myself. I didn’t understand why people treated me differently, and I didn’t understand why I was so lonely and angry.” By high school, Hunter “vaguely understood” that he was queer, but not where he “fit into the alphabet,” he says. “Most of my feelings about it fell under the umbrella of shame and self-loathing. Even when I started to find other young queer people in my hometown, I felt isolated.”
Many of the playlist’s cuts have “shared qualities,” according to Hunter. “Like the source of the feeling that makes one cry about the beauty and pain of living. [Bowie]’s ‘Five Years’ is like that, and so is [Beach House]’s ‘Silver Soul.'” He also cites a shared sensibility between Sade classic “No Ordinary Love” and Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do.” ““For better and worse, the experiences I had as a younger person shaped my feelings into very intense ones across the board. The way I feel love is incredibly intense. Too intense. Like my intimate connections are fated, epic even, and all of that is present for me when I’m listening to or singing ‘No Ordinary Love’ or ‘All I Do.’”
Another one-two punch comes by way of Syd Barrett’s “Dark Globe” and Wire’s “Outdoor Miner.” “They share something important to me that feels harder to pin down,” Hunter adds. “I feel crazy fairly often. I am crazy, and not in a cute way but in like a barely manageable way, and it seems appropriate for and commensurate with my experience of this world. In those moments especially, I often see myself as beyond hope of understanding or reason, and capable only of oceans of feeling and the desire not to be alone. These songs say to me, ‘There is a place here, even for you.’”
Longing is felt as well throughout the set, including on tracks like The Crystals, “Look In My Eyes” — which is both “so sweet” and “so sinister,” he adds — and The Mills Brothers, “Moanin’ For You” — which “has come to represent the occasional hopelessness” he feels inside. “When I hear this song, it is sweet, but also full of grief. I need to hear that sometimes.”
Spencer Kingman’s “Mortified” and Bill Fay’s “Be Not So Fearful” also both touch on the widespread fear among any marginalized group, and specifically within the LGBTQ+ experience. “‘Mortified’ makes me feel better about being so frightened so much of the time by making me feel less alone in my fear, and ‘Be Not So Fearful’ makes me feel better about being so frightened by reminding me that there are people who don’t necessarily share my fear but who recognize and validate that fear, and who will comfort me when I need it,” he adds.
Rounding out the mix, Hunter opted for a number of instrumental cuts — including The Smiths’ “Oscillate Wildly” and Charles Mingus’ “Myself When I was Real.” “‘Oscillate Wildly’ felt wild — which was relieving in a way I couldn’t have described at age 8 — as one of the first important songs in my life,” he says. “I couldn’t find words for what I felt then and needed the music to capture those feelings all by itself.” Mingus’ cut still moves the artist to be “careful, compassionate and introspective,” he adds. “It brings me real peace, which is quite a feat.” The set’s third instrumental cut — Spring Heel Jack’s Medusa’s Head” — is “brutal and nasty,” he says, anchored on “one baritone saxophone subtly manipulated” throughout: “Within it I feel the destructive anger in me focus and take purposeful shape.”
Another key cut — Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me” — speaks to the LGBTQ+ community’s embrace of its outlier status. “It wasn’t until a few years ago when I started to be able to acknowledge myself and take steps towards transitioning that I became someone who could really hear and celebrate ‘Freak Like Me.’ Now it feels more or less like a sacred anthem.”
As for Glass Candy’s “Hurt,” which is unavailable on DSPs? A YouTube deep dive is required. “I don’t even know if they still acknowledge it or if it’s currently available — but the lyric ‘I wanna hurt you / I wanna hurt me’ is a real paean to self-destruction,” he says. “I still feel my blood rise when it begins.”