The key word in the album's title actually is "about"; it's all about the about. The consistently elegaic tone here is borne from the fact that they're not songs for dancing and drugs, but about them—the dancing and drugs are gone, having taken all the pleasures of the night with them. The whole record feels like you went out clubbing and partying and there was a big rush of sensations and you stayed out very, very late and then all your friends went home, and now you're back at your laptop with a midi board, and maybe the sun is coming up, and you should drink some water, and all the loud pulsing sounds, the firebomb bass and siren swirl, are still echoing somewhere in the back of your skull.
The opener's chorus goes "this is it, this is us, here we go," which would be a rather punk rallying cry if the chords didn't suddenly strike a weird minor-key sucker punch at the end. Songs About Dancing and Drugs is full of morose twists like that. (Sample lyric: "They took all the love out of the ecstasy.") But if you read them only as deflated and downer-inducing, you'll miss the complexities of the album's emotional core. The contrast on "Hey You Guys," for example, between optimistic words and a pessimistic tune doesn't negate the former for the latter, instead it offers up the stuff of life in all its messy, occasionally vertiginous ambivalence.
Songs About Dancing and Drugs isn't the first album to go the bedroom Joy Division route, but it's certainly one of the most musically refined and emotionally acute. Lyrically, it's full of evocative, imagistic conceit, as Shaw tries to reach out and grasp a host of fleeting impressions from the night before—like "Dancers," which summons a throng of moving bodies, caught in the mind's eye between shadows and strobe bursts. Sparse, skittery production is the rule, where skeletal percussion and pointillistic bass stabs run scattershot underneath layered vocals and controlled swells of guitar feedback. On the beautifully mournful "Bombs Away, Away," bare slivers of wobbling New Orleans funeral horns and minor key blues guitar scrape against the silence, each successive sound like footfalls trudging home in the dark. It's pop unfolding in techno's shadow—listen to the shuffling beats and you can almost literally hear the clubby 4/4 pound in their negative space, as if the beats are carving techno's image in its absence.