“I’m obsessed with failure,” says Brian Dunne. “It’s so much more interesting to me than success, so much more honest and human.”
Truth be told, we all feel like failures on some level, like frauds and freaks and fuckups just waiting to be found out. Enter: Loser On The Ropes, Dunne’s entrancing new album and debut release for the storied Kill Rock Stars label. Recorded in Athens, GA, with producer Drew Vandenberg (Faye Webster, Of Montreal), the collection explores defeat and denial, fortune and faith, shame and redemption, all set against the backdrop of a world run by blowhards and bullshitters who manage to perpetually skate by without cost or consequence. Dunne may be a singer/songwriter in the purely technical sense of the term, but he shares more in common on this album with the punks and new wave weirdos who turned up in lower Manhattan and the outer boroughs in the ’70s and ’80s, DIY misfits who came to crash the party and ended up building their own scene instead. That’s not to say Loser On The Ropes is a punk album—in fact, it might be the most beautiful and melodic record Dunne’s ever made—but rather that the songs are lean and gritty, sick of mincing words and insistent on cutting straight to the heart of things with a raw, understated poeticism. The arrangements are similarly unsettled, drifting in and out of focus as they glow with the after-hours sheen of a city street on a rainy night. While it would be easy to get lost in the darkness of it all, Loser On The Ropes instead emerges as something much more resilient and exhilarating, as a celebration of the down-and-out, of the punch-drunk fighter in each of us who heads back into the ring with a bloody nose and a crooked smile, hungry for another round because it sure as hell beats giving up.
“I think a lot of us have internalized this need to say, ‘No worries! It’s all good!’” Dunne reflects. “It’s not all good, though. The world’s a shitshow right now and we can’t fix it if we don’t talk about it. That’s what this album is all about, both on a personal level and a much broader scale.”
Born and raised in Monroe, NY, Dunne learned to roll with the hits when he moved to NYC roughly a decade ago, barely scraping by at first as he forged his early career one hard-fought show at a time. Far from beating the ambition out of him, the city only sharpened his skills and thickened his skin, and in the years that followed, he would go on to release a trio of widely respected albums, share bills with everyone from Cat Power to Caroline Rose, and earn praise from the likes of Rolling Stone, who hailed “Chasing Down A Ghost” from his most recent album, 2020’s Selling Things, as “a stunner.” In 2021, Dunne landed an unexpected hit in the Netherlands with “New Tattoo,” a standalone single that reached #2 on the Spotify Viral 50 and landed him on a slew of Dutch national TV and radio programs. Within months, Dunne had released his first album in the country and was onstage at Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome, where he was invited to perform for an audience of 17,000.
“That whole experience taught me that failure and success aren’t these mathematical equations,” says Dunne. “You put your songs out into the world, and you have no control over what happens to them after that. The longer I live, the more I find out I have no control— over anything, really.”
Back in the States, meanwhile, Dunne signed with Kill Rock Stars on the strength of his demos for Loser On The Ropes, which he’d whittled down from nearly 200 tunes penned over several years of incessant writing. Working with Vandenberg in Athens, he fleshed the tracks out with analog synthesizers and reverb-drenched guitars, taking cues from Jonathan Richman, The Pretenders, Dire Straits, and Tunnel of Love-era Springsteen to cast a warm, cinematic haze over the whole thing that helped blur the already fuzzy lines between fantasy and reality for the characters who populate the collection. There’s the good-time girl jolted by a revolutionary awakening on “Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors;” the daydreamer who nearly drowns in his own inner monologue on “Thinking Of A Place;” the barstool philosopher searching for what it all means on “Sometime After This.” There’s a piece of Dunne in each of them, of course, but perhaps no narrator embodies its author more than the hopeless romantic who finds heaven in the little things on “Something To Live For.” “Well I’ve had my day of believing in fate and losing and not knowing why,” Dunne sings in the album’s final moments. “Now all that I know is that I’m halfway from home and there’s halfway to go up ahead / But I’ve got something to live for / Something to live for again.”
“I suppose I’ve always been slightly agitated, and I’ve spent most of my life trying to fix that about myself,” Dunne explains. “I tried on a lot of different personalities in my twenties, but eventually I realized that I’m just an optimist at heart, even if I’m not always a very good one.”
And that’s the beauty of Loser On The Ropes. It’s the work of an artist who sees the world for what it is and yet still refuses to grow jaded, who believes in the power of a song to help someone pick up the broken pieces of their life and feel whole again. It’s the work of an optimist obsessed with failure, and there’s nothing more honest—or more human—than that.