The output of New York indie pop institution Versus slowed considerably after a wildly productive run throughout the '90s. New material trickled out and the occasional live performance denoted a band not completely dormant but just in a prolonged state of semi-hibernation. Ex Nihilo, a four-song EP released in the spring of 2019, was the band's first new material in almost a decade, and from the way things had been going, it was anyone's guess when their next new music would arrive. Just a few months later, sixth full-length Ex Voto continued the somewhat futuristic themes begun with the EP, rounding out Versus' trademark co-ed vocal harmonies and inventive melodic perspectives with themes of mortality, escape, and dystopia. Album opener "Gravity" was presented in a more robotic reading on Ex Nihilo, but here the production is more fully fleshed out, heavy on winding guitar leads and supportive countermelodies from synth. Lyrics are heavy and even morbid, angry sentiments that could apply to either the bitter end of a relationship or the horrifying end of the world. After a lengthy instrumental intro, the bright jangle of "Mummified" betrays lyrics about the afterlife, lies dissolving in sunlight, and a general sense of the unknown. The brightness of the tune and its jagged lyrical undercurrents make for an almost surreal feeling, and this sharp contrast touches much of the album. The crystalline electro-pop of "Baby Green" is catchy and hopeful, but just enough to hide pained lyrics that could be addressing a person or a meteor speeding towards the Earth. Lyrics about deep space, time travel, and human shortcomings all serve as possible metaphors for lost love or the passing of time as Versus' guitar-forward songcraft is in its most polished form. Always tempering their pop sweetness with a dark edge, Versus sound in complete control of their sound on Ex Voto. While no one following the band could have predicted that they'd turn in a meticulously constructed album of futuristic wonder almost 30 years after their scrappy rise in the heyday of '90s indie pop, the weird and excellent Ex Voto is just that. It's also some of their most immediate and refreshing work in a catalog of classics, made even more impressive by the undeniable feeling that Versus are still growing after all these years.
Ex Voto Review
by Fred Thomas