The Hives are the first to admit that all their songs sound the same. “We’re sharks,” lead singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist told Rolling Stone. “Sharks have been the same for billions of years, and they still rule. You have no need for development if you’re a shark. You don’t evolve since nothing kills you.” The band’s latest album, The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons, is shot through with this sort of galaxy-brained tween-boy logic. Their formula is both stupid and sublime: sledgehammer guitars, drums that sound like they’re being punctured as they’re being played, obtuse lyrics delivered at a steady Scandinavian scream. Look elsewhere for maturity and subtlety. The Hives have only one goal: a bloody good time.
The gory fantasia on display has been in place from day one. Legend has it, in 1993, the five original Hives, then adolescents, were plucked from small-town Swedish obscurity by an elusive Svengali named Randy Fitzsimmons. Guitarist Nicholaus Arson once described Fitzsimmons as “the brain of the band,” “the sixth member,” and the writer of all of their songs. When he died under mysterious circumstances, the Hives went on hiatus—that is until unanswered questions about his death led the band to excavate his supposed grave. Rather than a corpse, the casket held an album’s worth of music and lyrics.
Of course, none of this is true. Randy Fitzsimmons is Arson’s songwriting pseudonym and the Hives’ long hiatus was a result of health problems. Mundane mortality, sickness, and surgery collided with the band’s fantasy world, and this bolt of urgency may account for the sheer rage of their new album. Filmmaker Aube Perrie’s music video for this album’s opening track, “Bogus Operandi,” features the Hives being picked off one by one, then zombified, in a campy play on Stieg Larsson’s Scandi-noirs. Beneath the goofy horror parody is an air of genuine threat: getting older, getting sick. Randy Fitzsimmons may be a fantasy, but The Death of is all too real.
Even as life interferes, you can imagine the album as a flight of whiskey: subtle variations on one recipe, pure fun to consume, liable to intensify one’s desire to punch cops. Very occasionally, the production is countryfied to achieve a spaghetti western vibe, or larded with Halloween pedal effects. Hand claps, gang vocals, and call-and-response choruses fill out the band’s bag of tricks. The one true outlier is the break-up ballad “What Did I Ever Do to You?” The sultry, slow-burning torch song is a poor fit for the lead singer’s strengths, and a real vibe-killer to boot.
Far better are the tracks where the Hives marry a sense of righteous outrage with the just-plain-outrageous. “Two Kinds of Trouble” draws hard ethical lines—“Enemies! Friends!”—that get fuzzier—“Cops! Police!”—and further from legibility—“Boats! Planes! Norwegians! And Danes!”—as the song goes on. Howlin’ Pelle delivers the anti-capitalist anthem “Countdown to Shutdown,” interspersing dead-serious commentary on economic inequality with call-outs to “my guy Ponzi,” who “had a scheme.” (In a press release, Howlin’ Pelle called this song “37 percent more effective than the closest competitor and sure to help your Q2 and Q3 results.”) The band even brushes self-parody, to delightful effect, in “The Bomb,” stretching the call-and-response chorus to its furthest limit:
What do you wanna do? Get down!
What don’t you wanna do? Get up!
What don’t you wanna not don’t do? Not get down!
What don’t you wanna not don’t wanna do? Not get up!
None of the Hives’ brethren in the garage revival would ever risk sounding this stupid. Most of them have long since stopped serving up thick slabs of rock beef, opting instead for brainy blues, à la Jack White, or yearning paeans to a bygone scene, à la the Strokes. By contrast, the Hives cling sincerely to all things cornball, refusing to die or even to age. Nobody ever said sharks had good taste.
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