Since founding the beloved DIY label Double Double Whammy in 2011, LVL UP have been creating quietly wonderful alternative rock albums, filled with straightforward songs of love, heartbreak and millennial malaise. For their third album Return to Love – their first for legendary indie label Sub Pop – LVL UP have expanded their sound, paying homage to seminal lo-fi artists such as Neutral Milk Hotel and the Microphones, as well as expanding their thematic horizons, dealing with concepts such as religion, spirituality and death.
On opener ‘Hidden Driver’, singer Dave Benton touches upon the strains of appeasing an unknowable deity, soundtracked to blown out guitar riffs that carry towards a cathartic finale. The song works because of its immediacy, as well as in how Benton chooses to frame his religious imagery: presenting spiritual forces as feelings and emotions rather than objects or figures. Another standout is ‘Spirit Was’, evoking early Built to Spill with swirling melodies and vocal harmonies, stressing a theme of existential anxiety.
Immediately after, ‘Pain’ discards mysticism and attempts to plainly address a horrific event in a relationship as viewed by an outsider. It deals with the anger that can take over when our efforts to help those we care about feel helpless: easily the most striking song on the album and perhaps the best.
A few tracks aren’t particularly memorable, but none are especially bad. Some, like ‘I’, recall the faster, poppier work from earlier LVL UP releases, offering a nice change of pace from the denser tracks. Ultimately, Return to Love marks an evolutionary step in LVL UP’s sound, but sometimes at the expense of what made their music so charming in the first place.