In the constellation of “don’t call it post-punk” post-punk bands that have emerged in recent years, Chicago’s Deeper stand out as proud traditionalists. Many of the young groups lumped together under the genre push against its (already broad) confines, or reject the tag altogether. But Deeper are masterful craftsmen happily existing in a clear lineage. On Careful!, their third album and debut for Sub Pop, they’ve returned with their sharpest collection of songs yet, hitting all the familiar post-punk pleasure centers while subtly expanding their own boundaries.
Deeper’s sophomore album, 2020’s Auto-Pain, documented a difficult period of transition for the band. They had begun writing and recording the record when guitarist Mike Clawson left the group on acrimonious terms. The split, they have said, inspired that album’s pervasive darkness. Then, not long after they had finished in the studio, Clawson died by suicide. With clubs shuttered by the pandemic, and still processing the loss of their friend, the band—vocalist and guitarist Nic Gohl, guitarist Drew McBride, drummer Shiraz Bhatti, and new bassist Kevin Fairbairn—began considering what else Deeper could be.
With Careful!, they venture an answer. Nearly every song sounds like a long-lost gem from post-punk’s 1980s heyday, with subtle updates from four subsequent decades of indie music. While Auto-Pain had plenty of hooks—often delivered by Gohl in vocal cadences that echoed Robert Smith’s yelpier side—it also skewed toward colder, more mechanical sounds. For Careful!, Gohl has cited “Bowie’s most coked-out productions” as an inspiration, and you can hear the melted plastic and corroded electronics of Bowie’s Berlin era—still conjuring post-industrial wastelands, but shot through with colors both vivid and lurid. Yet 1980’s Scary Monsters might be the closest antecedent: Careful! can be queasy and zonked, but Deeper wrangle even their ugliest sounds into their poppiest songs yet.
Earworms like “Glare” and “Sub” are driven by the requisite elements: insistent bass pulses, crisp drums, tangled-wire guitars. While those tracks are easy to love, many of the album’s standouts are those where Deeper tweak that formula. “Tele” swaddles its off-kilter chug in icy synths, while “Fame” grows hypnotically out of skeletal rhythms and ghostly strands of guitar and saxophone. “Everynight” has an infectious, sunglasses-at-night new-wave strut, while “Airplane Air” is both as claustrophobic and ethereal as its title suggests. Heavy on jagged, clanging guitars and muscular electric bass, the band’s aesthetic may not convert skeptics of the post-punk revival, nor will it shock those fluent in the music’s various iterations. But Deeper nevertheless make their historical reference points sound great right now, if not exactly groundbreaking.
While Deeper were always more earnest than sneering—the term “auto-pain,” referenced again here in “Glare,” denoted an imagined antithesis to the numbing drug soma, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—they have noticeably brightened the mood on Careful!. “Now build a bridge!” goes the rallying cry of the opening song, and the search for connection underlines much of what follows. The album concludes with “Pressure,” an unabashed love song written in tribute to Gohl’s wife. “Get you someone who kills/All the pressures of my life,” he practically coos. The sense of anxiety that has often plagued Deeper is still present, yet the band sounds more peaceful and content than we’ve ever heard them. That turns out to be Deeper’s real innovation on Careful!: Abandoning the genre’s stereotypical gloom, they’ve opened themselves up to something that looks almost like joy.
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