As we enter the second half of February, it's worth noting that several hundred full-length albums have already been released in 2016, and several hundred more have already been announced. Though this might qualify as good news for listeners who prize an abundance of options above all else, it means something very different for the people who actually make records that aren't called Anti or Blackstar. More than ever, artists who hope to avoid becoming another one of the unheard/unheard-of million are required to be savvy about how and when to insert their work into the world.
You might think such savviness would be second nature for Jessica Dobson. She's been a professional musician for more than a decade, having signed an ill-fated major-label record deal before the age of 20, and then serving as a touring member of the Shins, Beck, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But to hear her tell it, having to wait the better part of a year to release Secrets, the second full-length album by Deep Sea Diver—the Seattle band in which she sings, plays guitar, and writes songs—has been a more grueling process than making the record to begin with.
Secrets was finished in June of last year. Dobson and her bandmates (Garrett Gue on bass, Elliot Jackson on guitar and synth, and her husband, Peter Mansen, on drums) were champing at the bit to get it out, both because they were justifiably proud of the work and because momentum is a delicate, abstract idea for rock bands.
Deep Sea Diver have always occupied a weird spot in the indie rock hierarchy: Dobson's talents are undeniable, and her credits represent an impressive pedigree. But despite a well-received debut album (History Speaks, 2012), an even better EP (Always Waiting, 2014), and a litany of reliably mind-blowing performances (Dobson's set opening for Television at the Moore last June should be bronzed and mounted on a pedestal in the middle of the city), Deep Sea Diver seem to be poised on an eternal brink. And there's nothing like a triumphant new album to nudge a band into feeling like they might, at long last, emerge.
And so, album done, Dobson and her bandmates prepared to rush it out into the digital universe and see what happened. Then they talked to their manager, who advised them to wait until 2016, the better not to have to compete with the massive onslaught of prestige releases from better-known artists that pile up at the end of every year. It was good advice. Pro advice. It was also a complete bummer.
"I totally cried on the phone," Dobson remembers, laughing. "And I am not a crier. I was just so emotionally done. Let's get this thing out!" But she heeded the advice, and bit the bullet, using the nine months to play some shows, record and release an EP of Christmas songs, and generally prepare the group's own fledgling label, High Beam, to release the album properly.
"We're trying to act like a normal record label with a radio campaign and PR and all those things," she laughs. The house she and Mansen share in North Seattle testifies to their efforts. Everywhere you look there are boxes of vinyl, folded T-shirts, candid Polaroids of the band at work (to be included with pre-orders), and the packaging materials familiar to anyone who has taken on the sanctified, stultifying burden of D-ing-I-Y.
But this focus on the how of Secrets is only interesting in light of the what of it, which is breathtaking. Everything about the band has been stepped up just that little bit—the melodies catchier, the rhythms nimbler, the hooks sharper, the singing more urgent—that tells you a band has cracked its own code. Deep Sea Diver's sound issues from Dobson's guitar, and Secrets is foremost a feast for guitar lovers.
"I made a conscious decision to play more guitar on this record," she says. "I tried to take a step in the direction of having—I don't know if 'jarring' is the right word, but more in-your-face guitar tones. It was a little scary for me at first. It felt untamed. Even rehearsing—it has taken me a lot more time to be able to sing them and play those parts at the same time. On the first record, it felt very manageable and safe. This one isn't."
The varying textures on album opener "Notice Me" alone serve as a mission statement. The steady-stuttering figure the verses are built on opens up into dusky chords played with a restraint that matches the plaint in the lyric "Notice me noticing you." All gentility is then wiped out by a short up-and-down run of lead notes played through distortion that sounds simultaneously tough and muted (especially when compared to the wail of tone on the outro). Dobson's parts are a sublime collision of attention to detail and native rock instinct, control and abandon, skill and kill. If you're scouting the indie-rock landscape for guitar playing with more force and grace than Jessica Dobson's on Secrets, you're going to need some pretty strong binoculars.
Still, all the guitar textures in the world wouldn't matter much if she hadn't also been applying the same ambitious detail to the songwriting. If "Always Waiting"—included here in a slower, groovier arrangement than the EP version—represented a creative breakthrough for Dobson, the other songs on Secrets sound like its natural heirs.
"I tried to be less vague," Dobson allows. "It feels like there's an actual theme to this record, whereas the earlier ones were a little more hodgepodge. That theme being wanting to shake people from their slumber. And wanting to point myself toward the things that I cherish. It's so easy to become jaded and disconnected in a digital age."
"I don't think it's a call-to-arms kind of record," she's quick to point out, without finishing the thought. I wonder if maybe the real call of Secrets was of a private nature.
It's tempting to read some of the lyrics as Dobson singing about, or even to, herself. Lines like "Am I on my own/With no grip to hold your attention?" from "Creatures of Comfort," and "Quit trying to wait for some day that never comes" from "Body on the Tracks," and "It takes a moment just to realize that I'm free/Not a moment to waste" from "It Takes a Moment" welcome this introspective interpretation, but the overwhelming sound of Secrets is one of invitation. This is not a band that's desperate to be heard. It's a band, and a band leader, confident enough to know her music is worth waiting for.
"I've never felt in an entitled place," Dobson says. "Like 'Why don't more people know about us?' It makes me kind of excited. Every artist-band-musician has a different story, and in my mind, I try not to write that story. We just work as hard as we can, and whatever comes our way is bonus."
Deep Sea Diver will play at Neumos on March 16.