It is impossible to speak of Up Dharma Down without getting a little personal.
The first time I ever saw the group was in a vanished relic: the Mag:Net Cafe that used to stand in Katipunan. I was in high school, and this girl and I were seeing each other for no reason other than what was, back then, the sheer novelty of someone looking at you the same way you looked at them.
That night, Armi Millare’s gossamer melisma filled the room, while Carlos Tañada, Ean Mayor, and Paul Yap tapped into the frequency of human heartbeats. The air was a curfew begging to be broken, and I would come to learn the difference between falling in love, and love without a floor to stand on. That girl and I, we became footnotes in each other’s lives. I couldn’t care less. That was the first evening I ever heard “Taya,” and to this day, the line “‘Di mo lang alam” still sends me spiralling.
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I’ve noticed friends speak of UDD in this way, words dyed indelibly by wistfulness. There is always a memory, a lost thing, a place we can never go back to. Still, we’ve come out of all of that with hearts intact. That’s how it was with the stained glass shine of Fragmented, the cigarette drag haze of Bipolar, and the iridescence of Capacities. There is a comfort to having your melancholy refracted back to you as a beautiful, artistically thoughtful thing.
And I can’t help but feel that, like how our sadnesses have matured in unexpected ways, Up Dharma Down has evolved as a band in ways both aligned with, and far beyond, what we’ve expected of them. Their latest, self-titled album is evidence of such growth, a culmination of every skill, trick, and gesture the band has showcased throughout their long career, perfected.
The album opens with “Fool Truth,” a lounge-like jam with sax licks that could make any Goliath’s knees weak. The track sounds like the band members are masters of their craft, at level 100, just having fun. “Am I making sense, love?” Millare asks, interrogating her emotions even after exonerating a beloved.
As usual, Millare’s lyricism takes interesting elliptical turns. This tension is a line that threads through the whole album. It is a thread that pulls you irrevocably in.
I deeply appreciate the flow of this album, and how it shifts seamlessly between buoyant highs and soothing lows. Tracks like the infectiously bouncy “Sigurado” and funky “Tambalan” greet the senses like a confident lover. And one would be a fool to ignore “Moving on (All the Good Things),” an absolute jam by all accounts. Even in this jovial track, the threads of even-tempered melancholy are sewn in. “Are we moving on to new things?” moves into “Lovin’ you in all the good things” and those two lines deserve a Palanca award for the sense of prosody alone.
This is normally the part where a review would describe the stylistic strains that characterize the album’s sound, and there are quite a few. Inflections of soft disco, new jazz, and even city pop are part of what make UDD’s restrained ebullience. But I also like to say that years ago I burned Bipolar into an old computer and saw iTunes tag the album’s genre as Unclassifiable (not even “Alternative”), and I’d like to think that sonic fleet-footedness applies to UDD as well. “Anino” has keys and a searing guitar solo that border on 80s stadium rock anthem, and “Never” for some reason sounds like the triumphant credits sequence of your favorite romcom.
And while every single track on UDD is a gem — there are zero weak songs in this album — one could argue that “Young Again” is the album’s centerpiece and crowning jewel. The concluding track sounds like a peace treaty between the self and the self’s regrets. “Can’t wait to be young again, and be more than just a friend,” Armi sings. What kind of gymnastics must the heart pull, to be excited for a thing forever gone? “Why can’t we play pretend, that our love will never end?”
“Young Again” debuted in Apocalypse Child, a movie whose central character struggles to make order from life, despite having been brought into this world seemingly by accident, by the chaos of circumstance. And it is worthy existential undertaking, one that UDD guides us through with refined, empathetic songwriting. What’s left to do perhaps is to let the album age, let memories and moments attach themselves to the songs therein, and keep those things with us. May this we move through every crying season henceforth, and come out hearts intact.
UDD is now on Spotify.