Dirty Beaches and the Power of Drifting

In a way, all professional musicians are drifters. They travel from city to city courtesy of a van or bus with very few of their personal items in tow; an instrument, a bag of clothes, maybe a money pouch for merch sales. All of them find sanctuary in hotel rooms, on couches, or other people’s floors before heading to the next town. But even among musicians, there are very few who have actually lived the life of an honest-to-God drifter. Alex Zhang Hungtai, who performs as Dirty Beaches, has made the drifter’s life such a profound theme in his music that he could probably teach other musicians the Hobo Code between tours.

Hungtai’s breakout record, 2011’s Badlands, was more than just a great record, it was an aesthetic revelation. Take its cover: A grainy, black-and-white side-profile shot of Hungtai — sporting a white t-shirt and his hair slicked back greaser-style — puffing a split-sided cloud of smoke. Even if you hadn’t heard a second of Badlands. It’s a striking image, good enough to be a still from a Jim Jarmusch film or a page from Danny Lyon’s The Bikeriders.

The album itself — a spate of lo-fi greaser-punk and haunting balladry (songs had names like “Speedway King” and “A Hundred Highways”) cemented his American drifter persona. Hungtai has noted in various publications (including but not limited to his first Pitchfork interview) that he’s a nomad, coming of age in a variety of places and taking the experiences to create a body of work that feels truly cosmopolitan.

A double-album of sorts, with two separate titles fused together for continuity, Drifters/Love is the Devil is Hungtai ditching the worn leather jacket in favor of a less focused musical style that more accurately resembles his travails around the globe. Listening to the album evokes dusty neon lights, cycling down busy market streets lit with painted lanterns, and occasionally, skeevy clubs where people are having sex right outside of the champagne room. If Badlands was “The Wanderer,” Drifters/Love is the Devil is Tokyo Drifter.

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