Three consecutive tracks on Lower Dens’ fourth album, The Competition, are marked as “EXPLICIT” by Spotify, due to instances of the word “fuck” and variations thereof. However, that flag could be used to mark almost every track on this album. It’s not as though they’ve become the Baltimore dream-pop answer to 2 Live Crew. Rather, these songs are “explicit,” not in a profane sense, but a direct one. If you’ve kept up with the news even slightly in the last four-ish years, parsing through the lyrics won’t leave you with many hanging threads.

It’s also been about four-ish years since the release of the band's last record Escape From Evil. In a year where Beach House released two albums, another band from their turf (both in home city and style) beat them at their own game, with Jana Hunter able to pull off the gutting gravitas of Victoria Legrand’s best moments on tracks like ‘Your Heart Still Beating’ and ‘I am the Earth', and the rest of the band keeping things spritely but not superficial. They’ve since shed members to become a duo of Hunter and drummer Nate Nelson, both of whose contributions have helped to define the band’s sound.

Hunter, who’s come out as a transgender man, recorded his vocals for this album prior to starting testosterone, so his tone is consistent with what came before. He’s also on the front of the Brazil-inspired cover. Hunter’s presence has always been strong on Lower Dens releases, key in helping them to not just feel like another fine but unremarkable dream-pop band beyond some Krautrock infusion. His vocals don’t just get your attention because of how strongly he enunciates and projects, but because of concern he shows for things affecting him and those he loves. If you want to hear an album that reconfirms the existence of empathy, this one’s for you.

Some of the concerns are more personal (‘Buster Keaton’, ‘Real Thing’, ‘I Drive’), some are more political (‘In Your House’), and some marry the two together (‘Young Republicans’). Of course, it can always be argued that the political and personal can’t be separated, especially not when it comes to maintaining any sort of relationship with another. The titular competition refers to “the day to day competitive mindset that living under Capitalism forces us into.” Things like who the President is are, as the saying goes, a symptom, not the cause of strife. This isn’t going to open any third eyes about how broken the system is. It’s for nodding along to, and not just to its tempos.

The music, like the topics and lyrics, doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s solidly rendered and hard to find moments to knock. On the flip side, it’s also hard to find moments that deliver as much as the way they’d like them to, and they occasionally get in their own way. Opener ‘Galapagos’ has the marks of an empowerment anthem, due to Hunter’s expressive performance and sincerity (“If we see your heart, then we know it's real”), but an instrumental passage featuring various wonky tones feels like it’s trying to butt in from another song. It can almost feel like they’re trying to compensate for their decrease in personnel. ‘I Drive’ is Tears For Fears-esque new wave with guest vocalist :3lon, which doesn’t vibe that well with Hunter’s rhetorical questions (“Why can’t we be with the ones we were made to love?”); ‘Young Republicans’ is perfectly fine as it is but you may be distracted by thoughts of “Is Dear Tommy ever going to come out?”

Lower Dens have the right ideas for their music, but they’re not always the right ideas at the right time. This album, flawed as it may be, is still worthwhile for when the latter happens, like with the heated guitar work and wailing vocals of ‘Two-Faced Love’. The only ones we should competing with are ourselves, to keep trying new things and not having our self-worth obfuscated by achievements or doubts of others. This band will hopefully stay in healthy competition with themselves.