When Thee Oh Sees shed its longstanding lineup of musicians backing up frontman John Dwyer in 2013, there was cause for mourning. Though the project was and always will be Dwyer’s brainchild, but the support he received from bassist Petey Dammit, drummer Mike Shoun, and keyboardist/backup vocalist Brigid Dawson was, ahem, instrumental to taking his songs to new levels, both in studio and live. Just watch any live video from the first few years of this decade, or the delightful medieval-dress-up they took part in for the ‘Minotaur’ music video, and see how well they play with each other, whether on stage or in front of a camera.

If there was one member (besides Dwyer) though, who truly made Thee Oh Sees (now Oh Sees) special, it was Dawson. Even if you’d never watched a live Oh Sees performance, you might still be taken with the backing vocals, which weren’t diluting Dwyer’s eager yelps and whines, but instead accentuating them like a kindred spirit. Dawson’s voice has been compared to Kim Deal’s, and while her supposed leaving Oh Sees didn’t precede a Pixies-esque plummet in quality, it seemed like it’d be the biggest loss from the new chapter in Dwyer’s music career.

I say “supposed” because Dawson has still been active with Oh Sees, only sitting out for 2014’s Drop. Her melodic whispers have found their way into albums released with new lineups, like an old friend who you meet up with for “just one drink,” but then you’re reminiscing until last call. Some of the greatest pleasures from listening to this year’s Orc came simply from hearing the interplay between Dwyer and Dawson.

Dwyer and Dawson’s second collaborative album this year, Memory Of A Cut Off Head, isn’t an Oh Sees album. Rather, it’s an OCS album, reviving a moniker Dwyer hadn’t used in over a decade. Names aside, it’s also noticeably different from any recent (Thee) Oh Sees album. It’s not a raucous garage rock party, going in a much folkier direction with plenty of beautiful orchestral instrumentation, such as harpsichord, strings, and woodwinds. It’s also just as much Dawson’s album as it is Dwyer’s.

Though the sound is more subdued and the instrumentation is often picturesque, this is by no means a bucolic album. (The title alludes to decapitation, after all.) The best way to listen to it is to imagine Dwyer and Dawson as survivors of a nuclear apocalypse. They sing/speak in hushed tones as they trek across the ruined landscapes, conversing in weary rhetorical questions just to maintain some level of sanity. Just consider the opening title track, which they start by sighing, “Oh, what a day/ I lost my body,” before resenting the destruction caused by “the tyrants” and reflecting on the absence of God and an army to fight for them.

Even if what’s left of the world around Dwyer and Dawson is desolate, the album isn’t entirely a bleak. They are survivors, after all, and can find the good in a situation, even in a grim aftermath such as this. On ‘Cannibal Planet’ a spider is observed clinging onto a vine, they declare, “We’ve abolished all the wars we fight,” and children still play (albeit in rubble). With the rubbery bass and crude guitar, their voices are the most melodic part of this entire song. That is, until the string-led break towards the end. Still, it’s enough to make me realize I could listen to an album of Dwyer/Dawson back-and-forths over default synth and drum loops in GarageBand and leave at least reasonably satisfied. Though, there is one completely instrumental track, ‘The Baron Sleeps and Dreams’, which works fairly well, starting like a nice pastoral interlude before concluding as an eerie noise exercise.

Few albums in the Oh Sees catalogue are as emotionally intimate as Memory Of A Cut Off Head. Lyrics have never been the main point of Dwyer’s music (not because they’re awkward or generic; they can just be difficult to parse given how much he contorts his vocal chords). Here, the voices are clear and lead to some truly heartbreaking moments. On the harpsichord-led ‘The Remote Viewer’ they speak of being “junkies for despair” against frostbitten scenery. The moody guitar-picked ‘Neighbor to None’ has the warning of “I might drift away, the fog of time’s gone by.” Dawson gets a well-deserved song all to herself on ‘The Fool’, where she sounds sultry but pained against backing flute and strings throughout; “Every time I close my eyes, I see you.” ‘Time Tuner’ is another Dawson-led song, but her refrain of “Svengali, no” takes a bit of a backseat to the synths and moaning brass sounds. Meanwhile, closer ‘Lift a Finger’ ends things on a rather optimistic note with Dawson’s breezy vocals; “Find a creature who will teach you life.”

No one who’s followed Dwyer long enough will listen to this album and think that he’s closed the book on his more energetic nature. There are more than traces of that present here, as on ‘On and On Corridor’, where his sweeter tone in the verses is replaced with a more curdled one, like he’s smashed his head against a mirror and is about to ask “How’s Annie?” It’s also present, because Dwyer is present, along with Dawson, and we trust them to give us an album that will be brimming with energy and passion, no matter what volume they’re playing at.