The last time we heard from the Baltimore-born indie band Lower Dens, on 2015’s post-punk Escape from Evil, frontperson Jana Hunter had just proclaimed through a Tumblr post his position as gender-fluid or non-binary. (Hunter goes by both pronouns but in the past has requested male pronouns.) The four-year gap between Escape from Evil and his gorgeous new indie pop release The Competition encompassed a lot of growth, issues and his official transitioning.
“For me,” Hunter has said, “my transition is really bound up in my family history and has affected my mental health. And so a lot of the time in these past four years was spent reckoning with that. And since I made that Tumblr post, I have made a lot of progress, in learning about myself, and coming to terms with things.”
Hunter confronts his place in our xenophobic, transphobic, racist world head on here, though with little dogma and a premium on lush, atmospheric synthetics and a velveteen vocal prowess.
The most overt of the 11 tracks of The Competition is the direct “Young Republicans” and its attendant video wherein he is offered up as a cannibalistic feast for the titular characters. “I Drive,” the current single, is a bopping mesh of guttural synths and keening vocals reminiscent of Siouxsie Sioux. The jangling mid-tempo “Real Thing” is a glimpse of hope amidst the craziness of our current political climate. And the New Wave bounce of “Hand of God” details a journey to self-acceptance with clear-eyed romanticism.
Hunter recorded his vocals for The Competition before embarking on testosterone therapy; his voice is femme on this record, though he’s expressed reservations about Lower Dens’ upcoming tour.
“When I first started to notice a significant change in my voice,” Hunter has said, “it made me like dissociate. I couldn’t handle it. It took me a long time to be comfortable with it, and it’s also taken me a long time to get it back into shape. Because when you — it’s not just that your voice changes, but a lot of changes happen in your vocal cords, and if you transition too fast, or even if you transition at the normal rate it can scar your vocal cords. I was terrified of that, of just losing my singing voice. That happens to a lot of trans men. They just stop feeling like they can sing.”
No doubt Hunter will find his way and create a community of forward-thinking artists looking to create safe passage for others setting off on their own journeys, as well as just listeners who love good music. As he puts it with great simplicity and passion on the magnificent opening track “Galapagos,” “You belong here.”
We will be right there with him.