LVL UP’s new album, Return to Love, opens in the throes of existential crisis. Dave Benton, one of the Brooklyn indie-rock outfit’s singer-songwriters, goes searching for a higher power in the chorus of “Hidden Driver”: “God is peeking/Softly speaking/Breaking everything/Until I slowly do see.” But over a distorted acoustic guitar line recalling Neutral Milk Hotel, Benton reveals that he doesn’t see anything like God, only “a radial gradient of cops and priests.” He’s searching for divinity, only to find banal authority figures. Return to Love, the band’s third album and its Sub Pop debut, often finds the foursome confronting the Big Questions with equal parts reverence and flippancy.
LVL UP have lived up to their jokey name — video game parlance for moving on to the next phase — since forming at SUNY Purchase in 2011. The band’s first album, that year’s Space Brothers, sounded like something a bunch of college kids would write: short, wry songs with titles like “Bro Chillers.” The follow-up, 2014’s Hoodwink’d, hinted at brilliance — it overflowed with shabby pop — but didn’t feel fully formed: Only one of the album’s songs ran longer than three minutes. Return to Love centerpiece “Pain,” on the other hand, clocks in at a healthy five and a half and sounds like the work of an altogether more mature band, along the lines of mid-career Built to Spill.
Not that maturity is something LVL UP seem to aspire to. On the spirited “Blur,” singer-guitarist Mike Caridi sounds distressed staring at “this photograph of us in high school.” Aging and mortality are clearly preoccupations for these twentysomethings: “Pain” features the spiteful couplet “I hope you grow old/And never find love,” the last three words repeated over and over again to bludgeoning effect, while on “Spirit Was,” Benton sings, “You look the same but half-dead and acting your age.” The latter song — by turns shambolic and meticulous — would feel right at home on Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
Indeed, as it develops, the band increasingly appears to be looking backward to some of those Nineties indie giants. That mentality fits right in with the circular description of evolution (or is it de-evolution?) on album closer “Naked in the River With the Creator,” in which bassist Nick Corbo sings, “Life rose from the water/And ascended to the ground/To the sky/To the night/And back down.” Perhaps, as the song’s title implies, the search for God has come to a conclusion by the end of the record — it’s hard to tell. But either way, the chant-like song leaves the band, and us, a bit closer to the divine.
As much as they’ve grown up over the past five years, LVL UP have remained remarkably true to their original impulses. The arrangements may be fuller and longer, the sadness may be deeper and less ironic, but the band remains, at heart, that talented group of dudes from SUNY Purchase. Catch them before they level up again.
LVL UP play the Bowery Ballroom on September 29.