Dikembe Remind Emo Fans That It's Okay to Be Sad on 'Muck'
Published Aug 28, 2020Mr. Hooper was one of the most beloved characters on Sesame Street. Cranky and curmudgeonly but with a heart of gold, he was beautifully portrayed by Will Lee since the TV series premiered back in 1969. He became the most recognizable human character on the show, and his corner store was a neighbourhood hub for the Muppets and humans living in harmony. Mr. Hooper had a particularly close relationship with Big Bird.
When Lee died suddenly in late 1982, the writers and producers of Sesame Street chose not to recast him, nor to tell its young viewers that Mr. Hooper retired or moved away. Instead, they took the opportunity to write an episode to teach children about death. In the episode, the innocent, naïve Big Bird acts as the audience surrogate; the patient, supportive adults have to explain why Mr. Hooper is gone, and why he's never coming back. It's an incredibly moving scene, and a defining moment for Sesame Street.
That same struggle to understand and accept the harsh realities of life and death is the focus of Muck, the fourth album by Florida emo veterans Dikembe. These songs are knotty and sticky, clogged with anxious thoughts and anxious riffs as singer and guitarist Steven Gray lives with the lingering effects of the loss of his mother. Combining the hammer hits of In Utero and Dirt with the creakiest floorboards in the fourth-wave emo mansion, Muck finds Dikembe bending their genre to meet the messiness of their minds. "Why swim when you can sink?" Gray asks. In contrast, Dikembe's first EP in 2011 was full of fun: It was called Chicago Bowls, all the song titles were weed-themed puns on the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls roster, and it sampled an endearing scene from Freaks and Geeks. The band's lyrical content has long been the definition of emo — depressed, self-pitying, melodramatic — but early on, there was a youthful pep to their music. Here, it feels weighted. "Parked my ass in a van / Where I sat around, thought about death and shit / Then it all got sick," Gray sings in the grimy groove of "All Got Sick."
On Dikembe's last two albums — 2014's Mediumship and 2016's Hail Something — they were working on a cool new sound, but hadn't quite figured out how to make memorable songs out of it. Muck finds them settling nicely into this identity, mixing in a sprinkling of the emo-punk jangle of their early years while expanding their grungy post-hardcore sound with newly added piano and string arrangements. "Stay Beat" recalls the dense, grungy alt-rock of Balance and Composure, "Old Husks" waltzes with the Americana tinge of Into It. Over It., and several songs feel a bit like listening to Science Fiction guilt-free. While the album can often feel crushing and claustrophobic, the album gradually reveals its emotional range, especially with "Perfect Mess." That depth comes into full view with the arresting closer, "Leveled Again."
In the aforementioned Sesame Street episode, Big Bird is helped through his crisis and begins to accept the loss of his friend. "Leveled Again" samples a clip of that scene, but the dialogue cuts off at the height of his anguish: "I don't understand. You know, everything was just fine. Why does it have to be this way?" The band then pick slides into a huge finale with a skyscraping guitar solo, and closes it out with three minutes of Hammock-esque closing credits. Gray has set his voice aside to let the instrumentals tell the end of the story, and it's an ending that sounds pained but hopeful. While Dikembe's debut, Broad Shoulders, remains an underrated gem of the "emo revival," Muck is arguably their defining moment — their vision for a complete, thematically driven and sonically stimulating album stronger now than ever. The lesson: it's okay to be sad. Just take it from Sesame Street. (Skeletal Lightning) (Skeletal Lightning)