The third song on Dirty Beaches’ full-length debut was called “Sweet 17,” and it was tough to figure out when and how it was made. It sounded like it emanated from a corroded acetate recording from Sun Records in the late 1950s. The propulsive beat was canned, vaguely recalling rockabilly, and the vocals were muffled and buried but jittery and nervous.
Through his explosive yelps, the singer, Alex Zhang Hungtai, could have been Elvis Presley on speed or maybe Chris Isaak on acid.
Taken from the album “Badlands,” the song suggested Dirty Beaches had a specific aesthetic: old rock ’n’ roll reflected through a warped prism where the microphones are busted and the production hopelessly lo-fi. It was easy to get a one-dimensional impression of the band.
“Nowadays with the Internet, we don’t really give that much time to people,” Hungtai says. “You go on YouTube and Google, and then within five or 10 minutes, you think you know what [bands] are about. Which is not necessarily fair, but it’s how our Internet culture has formed this behavior. We have such little time and attention span to remotely know. We judge it by the cover or the surface.”
Dirty Beaches, which comes to Church on Thursday as part of the Fenway Recordings Sessions, was a victim of that thinking. But it turns out Hungtai had grander aspirations for the project, as heard on his ambitious new double album. “Drifters/Love Is the Devil” swells to 16 songs, the last half of which are mostly instrumental tracks. Hungtai’s penchant for hazy production remains intact throughout, but several songs also have a vast cinematic sweep that unearths new shades of his music.
A cursory look at Dirty Beaches’ Bandcamp site, which collects most of Hungtai’s output, including his singles and soundtrack work, reveals he has always been on this path. But it was “Badlands,” released in 2011, that finally brought him a bigger audience.
He made “Badlands” for his father after finding old photos of him looking like a badass. Hungtai was inspired by what he discovered — “Man, I had no idea you were this kind of guy. You used to ride a motorcyle?!” he remembers thinking — and he even mimicked his dad’s looks. The album cover features an image of Hungtai shot in profile, a mysterious figure cast in shadows with plumes of smoke concealing his features. The album was meant to convey something he hadn’t been able to tell his father before.
“It was kind of like saying, ‘I love you, Dad, even though you never told me that. But here I am, I made a record for you. I never told you I love you, so this is my way of telling you.’ ”
His old man’s reaction was predictable, he says. “It was the same tough-guy [expletive]. It was a grunt and, ‘Yeah, great,’ but my mom told me he cried. That’s my dad, and I love him for it.”
He originally thought “Drifters/Love Is the Devil,” which is less concerned with song structures and more indebted to mood, would be even more experimental, largely as a reaction to what had come before it.
“I was trying to destroy the image that ‘Badlands’ brought me,” Hungtai says, adding that he eventually realized he was being experimental purely for the sake of being experimental, which he hates.
“I think this new album is a very introspective and harsh self-critical look at myself,” he says. “It took me a really long time to digest the minor success I got from ‘Badlands.’ Basically I wanted to annihilate the inflated ego that came after that album.”
The new album deals a lot with ideas of transience and displacement, notions Hungtai has encountered as someone who was born in Taiwan and is now based in Montreal. The record’s narrative arc is told in the song titles: “I Dream in Neon,” “Greyhound at Night,” “Love Is the Devil,” “Like the Ocean We Part.”
“Those are always going to be the repeating themes of Dirty Beaches until I’m ready to move on,” he says. “That’s why I love scoring soundtracks so much: It has nothing to do with me. I don’t have to write or think about myself. It’s just music for the sake of music. I’m playing a supporting role.”
As often as his lyrics are obscured, Hungtai is adamant that he’s not hiding behind anything. In fact, if fans ask him for the lyrics, he’ll gladly provide them by e-mail. He’s more emphatic about the way he relates to music, which is not typically based on words.
“English was my second language, so for me when I connected with music, it wasn’t lyrically,” he says. “It was very instinctual and had to have an emotive effect on me. I really enjoy listening to music in other languages. It’s really liberating. Instead of critiquing and thinking something doesn’t speak to my experience, you just appreciate it for how it makes you feel.”