Sunday, December 18, 2016

album review: 'WORRY.' by jeff rosenstock

So I've mentioned a number of times throughout the three years I've done this series that I'm not the biggest fan of nihilistic artwork - not because I find the themes morally repugnant so much as they just get tedious after a while. You can wallow in your own depravity and debauched hedonism all you want, but at least switch it up once and a while or try to say something interesting about your condition - looking at you, Future.

But that's not to say music with dark or depressing themes doesn't work for me, especially if the writing or instrumentation twists in interesting directions. Enter Jeff Rosenstock, a name you're probably most familiar with from the New York punk and ska scene, namely as the frontman of Arrogant Sons of Bitches, the DIY ska-punk collective Bomb The Music Industry!, and the indie rock group Kudrow. But where I started to take more notice was his solo work, and when I say that I mean that my notice was driven by a bunch of music critics I otherwise respect telling me insistently that I need to hear this guy. And sure enough, they were right, because Jeff Rosenstock's music was right up my alley. A punk smart enough to temper his anthems in the sort of overwritten but self-deprecating material to temper the bite, with a frankly astonishing level of detail to paint the pictures, both instrumentally and lyrically, his music reminded me a bit of Frank Turner in a weird way in the maturity of their punk mindset and a commitment to ridiculously catchy music. But I think Rosenstock squeezed more instrumental styles and tones into his first two solo records, aptly titled I Look Like Shit and We Cool?, grabbing from ska and garage rock and lo-fi and even synthpunk to form a raucous, utterly unpredictable sound that really stuck with me, I really dug those records. As such, while again it has been a long time coming, I really wanted to check out his newest release this year WORRY. - did it hold up to the hype?

Okay, here's the thing: this album is everything I want from Jeff Rosenstock and it's exactly the record that I think a very specific demographic needed right now and will continue to need for the next couple of years - make no mistake, we're going to need real punk music to keep up some sort of cultural momentum more than ever. And I can say all of that with the acknowledgement that by the time we hit the second half of this album, it doesn't really click with me as deeply as I would like, mostly because I'm not the biggest hardcore punk or ska fan. Does WORRY. crystallize a form of these genre that I enjoy, of course, but I've always been fond of the more melodic side of punk and this material doesn't quite get there for me personally - I like it, but I don't love it. 

And believe me, that is frustrating given how much praise I want to give this album for essentially doing all of the rest right, because this is indeed a great punk album that hits on very relevant content, moods, and anxieties right now that I can see having tremendous relevance going forward. On the surface, sure, Rosenstock isn't drifting that far away from themes he's touched on before - a perpetually hungover, earnest but painfully self-aware desire to hold onto something real and human in the face of a rapidly mutating and chaotic world. But things aren't nearly that simple - for one, the riot might be going on but it's becoming increasingly easy to shut it out and paralyze and ignore it thanks to social media and social pressure - eviction and gentrification rarely inspire white liberals to break out into the streets in protest, especially when it becomes increasingly easy to say, 'well, it's not so bad'. People settle into routines, fall into line, and even when they might say 'life is so fucked these days', the explosion into righteous rage isn't happening, and that leaves someone like Rosenstock who is very much living in peril right now in a perpetual state of very real anxiety. And what he's also very acutely aware of is that it's such a slow process that people who aren't otherwise paying attention will not figure it out until its too late, and the framing is always very clear to put himself in that picture - after all, like everyone else, he's terrified to change, and in a world that's constantly changing and evolving, often for the worse of the general public, it's exhausting to constantly be screaming about it. 

And that anxiety permeates this record and leads to some of its most powerful lyrical moments: 'Festival Song' where he sees sponsored musicians screaming to fight the power and the fashion industry glamorizing and commercializing the punk aesthetic and turning it into another trend, 'Staring Out The Window At Your Old Apartment' sees him looking in on a friend in unfamiliar territory after her landlord renovated her place in a way that was tacky and disconcerting - but where else is she supposed to go? 'To Be A Ghost...' is perhaps one of the most potent statements against the disaffection of internet culture you're ever going to see, from trolls to trending hashtags to the isolation of social media to the information overload that all seeks to tune you out, whether it be passive, active, or taken of your own free volition. Hell, 'The Fuzz' takes that struggle and makes it very real, speaking on police brutality: it's all about you not caring about the oppression around you as it systemic grows, urging you to tune out the noise. Hell, Rosenstock even places himself in the picture on 'Wave Goodnight To Me', where ever increasing age has him wondering what he could have done with the right foresight especially with so much slipping away around him, so he clings to whatever moments of fun he still feels because there needs to be something. And that leads to the most potent gutpunch of all: even if you stand and fight, you stay tuned in and speaking out, you cling to those awkward, rough-edged, half-sober moments that matter and might even push change... it's never going to feel like enough, and it will never be perfect. And sure, that's true too if you fall in line, but acute self-awareness makes it an active, draining part of your psyche - but that's because Rosenstock gets that that is what makes life worth living, and as he says on '...While You're Alive', love is worry. Or to put it in the terms of one of my all-time favourite TV shows, 'if love is like a promise, it's a promise to, like, try real hard - it doesn't mean you can't fail'. 

Man, I could go on for an hour how much I love these themes and how great of a detailed yet precise writer that Rosenstock is, self-aware to the point of paralysis but one that he knows and recognizes and makes a point to drive the message... but I eventually have to get to Rosenstock and the music itself. In short, this guy is a hell of a frontman, and he throws himself into this material to the point where there are songs and moments where his voice sounds utterly spent, especially on high notes - and yet, it fits, especially thematically with how you'd expect this guy to sound. I won't say that some of the wheezier moments in his voice don't get distracting, but that's minor, especially considering the simply blazing clip this record proceeds upon. It might start off with a piano melody that eventually picks up a rough approximation of a pub singalong, but from there it rarely slows down at all, blazing across hardcore, synthpunk, indie rock, and even hints of ska on songs like 'Rainbow'. And while the first half of this record is not flawless - I'm not wild about how the instrumentation drops out for an obviously synthetic segment near the end of 'Pash Rash', which shows up in a similar way on the borderline fuzzy chiptune against the tapping beat later on 'The Fuzz' - it probably has the most cohesive and fully formed songs, from the wiry synthpunk of 'Festival Song' to the seedy organ that fuels the Weezer-esque bass interplay and ramshackle vibe of 'Staring Out The Window At Your Old Apartment'. Hell, I'd argue the bass grooves are some of the most underrated highlights of this project, from the bright melody line of 'Wave Goodnight To Me' to how it becomes the foundation of the mostly acoustic 'To Be A Ghost...' and '...While You're Alive' until they explode as mirror images of each other, to how on a brief breathing moment of 'Bang On The Door' it gives Rosenstock's fast-paced delivery to breathe a bit. But really, you need moments like that or the opening of 'HELLLLHOOOOLE', especially on the second half of this record, where the hardcore influence erupts to the forefront and songs barely hit the two minute mark - and yet amazingly, Rosenstock still manages to cram in more and more hooks that could easily sustain longer songs, almost to the point where I'd hesitate to call them fragments. Oh, for sure some of them are - both 'Pietro, 60 Years Old' and especially 'Planet Luxury' feel like that to me, especially the latter - but again, I'm not the biggest hardcore punk fan, and I can imagine those who like it more will probably really enjoy the hell out of how frenetic and riotous it is.

But as a whole, while I will easily admit that I dig the lyrics and themes more than some of the compositions, this is a great punk record, with the sort of edge, brains, and charm to really stick with you. At this point Rosenstock is practically an elder statesman in his scene, but he's using it to make music that is just as furious, vibrant, and relevant as so many of his peers. In other words, this album was awesome, it gets an 8/10 from me, and it's not even just recommended - if you can't find less than forty minutes to take this in - and you can download it for free from his donation-based label - you're inevitably wasting time. Folks, definitely get on this one, you will not regret it.

No comments:

Post a Comment