Love isn’t black and white on Dehd’s brilliant debut full-length, Water. Like the wet, wild substance itself, love is slippery, messy, unpredictable. It seeps into all aspects of our lives. Without it, we’d die, but lose ourselves in it — even for a second — and we can drown. Anyone who’s been in love knows this; and yet on Water, each feeling is fresh, each note is raw and immediate.
For former couple Jason Balla and Emily Kempf of Dehd, Water was a life raft in desperate times of change. This was obvious when I first saw the band in late 2018, around the time we became labelmates on Fire Talk Records. Watch Dehd live, and you’d never guess that the propulsive rhythms and sweet, scrappy melodies of Water were crafted amidst such personal strife.
Then again, maybe I’m projecting. My band, Patio, recently released our own record, Essentials, written around the chaos of my mid-20s. During that time, the romantic relationships I’d been in made me question a lot of what I thought to be true about myself. As I struggled to feel better, writing songs became a therapeutic exercise for my worried, anxious mind. But those evil forces were mostly external; Patio was my comforting escape. Dehd, on the other hand, found a way to stay afloat together.
Along with bandmate Eric McGrady, Dehd remain an unshakeable unit, and their chemistry continues to sparkle across Water. In some ways, the album feels like dreamy escapism, but its songs couldn’t be more real or urgent. Quick and concise, its 13 tracks drip with timeless appeal; like the best ‘60s pop, Dehd’s bite-sized love songs are warm and lively, yet thinly veiled with sadness. With its sunny, sing-along chorus, jangly opener “Wild” taps into the same youthful abandon as classics from The Beach Boys, The Troggs, and The Shaggs. There are gloomy pauses, too, like the gluey, mopey bassline of the Velvets-esque “Do You.” “Tell me that you’re only gonna think of me tonight,” Balla pleads with a glimmer of seductive darkness.
Water is littered with similarly heartfelt sentiments, from the optimism of “Lake” (“true love conquers all”) to the innocence and irony of “On My Side,” a wistful, introspective ballad. Proclamations of eternal devotion are paired with relatable moments of insecurity and doubt. “Will it be enough?” is the question posed on “Lucky” over an infectious chorus of “sha la la”s. It’s the question we ask ourselves as we’re just beginning to fall, perhaps already losing sight of what’s underneath us. My absolute favorite is “Sunbeat,” with its sparse, methodical drumming and Kempf’s feral punk chants. “I! Got what! I want!” she barks, while a hypnotic riff helps spin the track into a dizzying frenzy of alternating shouts. Here, and throughout the entirety of Water, Dehd are effortlessly chill, but desperately earnest. Few bands are willing to wear both emotions so openly on their sleeves.
Ultimately, Water is most perfect in its imperfect moments. On its concluding title track, Kempf’s vocals crack, bubble, and shriek. “I need you like I need the water,” she admits. “I just can’t stop loving on another.” The line drips in heartache, but its delivery is ecstatic and triumphant. Even through the stickiest, most complicated ends, Dehd still find the joy in love—and in each other. Naturally, Water is a pure, painful reflection of mutual bliss.