Artist: dEUS

Album: Keep You Close

dEUS, on Keep You Close, build smoky, minor-key rock grooves and lock into them, building and shaping each over the course of about five minutes. Their singer Tom Barman, the American among these giants of the Belgian scene, used to remind me of Kermit’s nephew Robin the deus_keep_closeFrog and/or Emmet Otter and/or Gobo Fraggle. His vocal tone still remains from those comparisons, but Barman’s shed his boyishness (though less so than has the late Jerry Nelson, who voiced all three). He sings, now, of romantic relationships that are rocky, or that one ought to know better than to try, or that one settles for because of a need to feel strongly about someone. It’s probably just as well that I’m not picturing, sandwiched among them, Barman chirping “I’m a big frog now, I’m five!”.

Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs guests on Dark Sets In and Twice We Survive, making sure I think of Afghan Whigs’ Black Love with all its sweep and barely-restrained aggression as a useful comparison. Dark Sets In inhabits an ex-boyfriend turned voyeur. Twice We Survive has lines that would be apology on their own (“Too smitten to be just a flirt/ Too loose to be connected/ I gave you less than you deserved/ And less than you expected/ Cause twice I set my mind on you/ And twice I gave you nothing”), but is set at the beginning of attempt number three, with a warning that it’s unlikely to be any different. Ghosts is relatively perky, with the tuneful tinkling of steel drums and Barman’s laid-back rapping (along with his more anxious singing), but the wryness of “It wasn’t till I met you that I realized/ I wasn’t living in a movie but a franchise/ Just a couple of changes but the same old thing/ The sequel was a flop, let the third one begin” doesn’t make me want to live that scenario, and the tolling bass chords and booming drums make their own skepticism known by the second half.

My favorite songs on Keep You Close — Constant Now, Second Nature, the title track, the ones I named above — are the ones that best follow the formula: the bruised not-quite-vanished boyishness of the singer steering us into increasingly ominous (but danceable) music. dEUS used to be woolier, more playful and experimental; like many of their fans, I love them most for 1997’s In a Bar, Under the Sea, where you never knew what sort of groove was coming next. They aren’t that band anymore, which was disappointing in the mid-aughts; but Keep You Close shows me they don’t need to be. They’re more proficient now: they do what they do, very well indeed.

– Brian Block

To see the rest of our favorites, visit our Favorite Albums of 2012 page!