The husband and wife duo that makes up The Submarines, John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard, famously recovered from a break-up during the recording of debut record Declare a New State!, and the album’s melancholy pop tunes told the story of a relationship in turmoil. Sophomore album, the post-marriage Honeysuckle Weeks, was a sunnier affair that basked in the glow of blooming love.
This time around, it seems they’re splitting the difference. The dichotomy is present right there in the title — Love Notes/Letter Bombs — and that titular slash pops up all over the album, with notions of true love and human fallibility duking it out for lyrical prominence.
Like the previous two albums, Hazard’s bright vocals soar over Dragonetti’s electronic-tinged pop melodies, and if the lyrics tend to vacillate, the music lands solidly on the optimistic side of the scale. But as Hazard and Dragonetti showed on Honeysuckle Weeks, cheerful doesn’t have to equal mawkish — and the lyrics bear a matter-of-fact honesty that are comforting in how straightforward they are.
The first two cuts on Love Notes/Letter Bombs, “Shoelaces” and “Fire,” almost feel like they could be b-sides on Honeysuckle, with churning, luminous dispositions that seem ready-made for an iPhone commercial like the one Honeysuckle’s “You, Me and the Bourgeoisie” showed up on. Despite its more languid pace, “Birds” strikes a similar note.
Fortunately, Love Notes doesn’t simply regurgitate its predecessor, and the twin pairing of “Ivaloo” and “The Sun Shines at Night” exemplify admirably the contradictions the album is exploring. “Ivaloo” features ukulele underpinned by synthesizers, with Hazard and Dragonetti trading cautiously hopeful vocals. “You’ll bring your overhead projector / to demonstrate where we go wrong,” he sings. “You’ll chart our every flaw / shown 10-times tall on the bedroom wall / but if you love me / we can erase it all,” she answers.
On the earnest “The Sun Shines at Night,” the sentiment of “The sun shines at night / we’re in love and it feels so right” runs up against the reality of “Your doubts, they hold strong / and my hope, it burns too long.”
Many of the album’s songs have a kind of point/counterpoint structure, with love’s successes and failings comingling side by side, but Love Notes/Letter Bombs isn’t nearly as schematic as that sounds. Hazard and Dragonetti have a knack for creating soundscapes that seem effortlessly constructed, and one is much more likely to float away on the album’s melodies than get bogged down in some kind of emotional exercise. That more substantial concerns are present is simply a bonus for fans of intelligently constructed pop songs.