You won’t have to look far to discover the significance of At the Drive-In’s “Incurably Innocent,” the new cut from the band’s upcoming album Inter Alia, released on Wednesday. As lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala explained to NME, the track is “a song about sexual abuse and being able to finally speak out.” It’s a striking statement, but not quite for the reasons listeners ignorant of the post-hardcore quintet’s history might think.
Formed in 1993, the band’s early history traces an emergence from the obscurity of their El Paso roots that culminated in 2000’s landmark album Relationship of Command, followed soon after by the band’s dissolution in 2001. (They reunited in recent years; Inter Alia will be their first post-reunion project.) Their rise driven by a relentless touring schedule and hyperkinetic live shows, At the Drive-In’s aesthetic matched a steady, more or less traditional hardcore bass, drums, and rhythm-guitar section with the angular, spidery dissonance of lead guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala’s expressionist lyrics, which sacrificed direct meaning in favor of phrasings whose cryptic nature and baroque terminologies were animated by spasms of personal and political fury. Trauma and loss have always been central to the band, but they distinguished themselves by their glancing, subterranean approach to those themes. It was somewhat strange, then, to hear Bixler-Zavala so plainly spell out meanings he once would have left for listeners to decipher on their own.
Strange, too, is the song itself, whose lyrics, despite being more readily legible than ATDI’s earlier work, manage to be not only less compelling but more unclear. (Chorus excerpt: “He keeps a hiding your photograph / Of the moment that you needed to emasculate his photograph.”) The spiritual tension is still present, though much subdued (Rodríguez-López’s guitars still have some kick to them), but the verbal complexity, and the psychological weight it represented, have vanished altogether. Chalk it up to the absence of youth or the lack of hard drugs, but “Incurably Innocent,” like its predecessor lead single “Governed by Contagions,” leads one to suspect that the reunited At the Drive-In of today is a shadow of its former self. It’s not certain whether Inter Alia will confirm those suspicions (the only way to be sure is to listen to it on its May 5 release date), but it hardly gives one hope when the most pregnant phrase in “Incurably Innocent” — “Out in the dial-toned distance” — is, semantically speaking, a close cousin to “phoning it in.”