By the time of 2015's Escape from Evil, Baltimore's Lower Dens had significantly reconfigured the eerie dream pop of their earliest albums into something equal parts disaffected indie rock and '80s-inspired synth pop. The scrappy haze of distortion and reverb that the band started out with cleaned up nicely with sharper guitar lines, more distinctively mixed vocals, and most melodies being delivered through beaming synthesizers. Fourth album The Competition doubles down on Lower Dens' moves towards maxed-out synth pop, reducing the dreamy rock band nature of their past to a whisper sitting at the core of their neon-lit low-key pop constructions. Down to a duo of band founder/principal songwriter Jana Hunter and multi-instrumentalist Nathaniel Nelson, the songs have a more direct feel. Drum beats are played more like they were programmed, synth patterns weave together, and all the elements work together in computeristic lockstep to serve as the backdrop for Hunter's slowly uncoiling melodies. Lyrically, The Competition is tied loosely together by themes of competition and power struggles in a capitalist society. These themes are hard to discern on much of the album, but standout "Young Republicans" offers a satire of upwardly mobile conservatives recast as paranoid vampires, all set to glassy synths and guitar leads lifted directly from Scary Monsters-era Bowie. "The Real Thing" slows down enough to make out more themes of excess in an age of competition, as Hunter lays out a narrative about loving a partner but wanting more than love and commitment. He punctuates the severity of this desire for more with the biting refrain "I don't care about the real thing." As The Competition goes on, subtle nods to many '80s influences show up, Hunter recalling Siouxsie Sioux's howls, Tears for Fears' vulnerable crooning, Depeche Mode's frigid synth sequences, and Kate Bush's digital experimentation circa The Dreaming. Songs like "Simple Life" hold all of these influences simultaneously. Sometimes the albums' various synths can crowd the arrangements, but even this chaotic feel reveals itself as part of the larger vision. "Empire Sundown" cloaks Hunter's vocals with layers and layers of synth lines, eventually sounding like a Yellow Magic Orchestra track playing over something by M83. This sonic claustrophobia mirrors the overarching picture painted by The Competition, one of a world on fire where people struggle to survive, let alone connect emotionally. The album maintains the smoldering quality that Lower Dens have always had, but replaces all the washed-out splendor with exacting pop hooks borrowed straight from the Reagan era. It ends up being both the headiest and most commercial material the band has created. It's a different beast from their earlier iterations, but a compelling remodeling with interlocking layers of both sound and cultural critique.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas