Monday, January 8, 2018

album review: 'POST-' by jeff rosenstock

So I'm actually a little surprised I didn't get as much backlash as I was expecting for my more political picks on my year-end lists - maybe you're all just used to my point-of-view by now, maybe the records' quality overran the content, or maybe I just haven't pissed off the right set of people yet. But for those of you who are bothered by the politics coming up at all, be you on the left or right... well, look, I'm not sure what to tell you, I think we were all hoping this conversation would have quieted down by now and yet with every passing day it seems to get even louder. And given how certain tax policies are now directly targeting artists in an era of greater economic inequality than ever, you can't expect them to shut up.

Granted, I'm not sure you could shut up a punk rock lifer such as Jeff Rosenstock even if you tried. When WORRY. became a critical darling in 2016 just days before the election, even in the face of a possible Democratic victory you could still hear the pronounced anxiety, how even if they won, gentrification and police brutality and social media obsession and the increased numbness of a weary millennial population wasn't going away, especially in the face of crippling self-awareness of their culpability and flaws. It was a record approaching burnout with the half-drunk determination to keep staggering forward because it couldn't get that bad... and then the election happened. And while to some extent that does lock WORRY. into a very specific context pre-election, it also threw a wide enough net and captured the cultural mood so effectively that did stick around, so it doesn't fade into immediate irrelevance like Common Black America Again did. And really, given how closely attuned Rosenstock's writing felt to his audience, I knew it was only a matter of time before he'd contextualize the insanity of the past year and come back all the stronger. It'd be political, it'd be empathetic, it'd give Rosenstock the space to push his blend of power pop, hardcore punk and even traces of ska into even more places - in short, it's the record I think a lot of people needed to start 2018. And thus, what did we get with POST-?

Honestly, I wanted to like this a little more than I did. Of course I'm not saying this is remotely bad - Rosenstock is too smart of a writer both in lyrics and composition to let that happen, and there are truly some brilliant moments on POST- - but I don't think it has the lasting impact of WORRY. and overall I get the impression it's a more scattered, fragmented, and misshapen listen than the nervous panic of that last album. And while like, say, Destroyer's ken it makes artistic sense, I'm not sure as a whole it holds up as well.

Now again, that's not take away from Rosenstock - he's a howling, incredibly expressive presence as a singer that can uncannily capture anxiety, rage, frustration, and a bone-deep tiredness that provides the emotional weight to so many of these tunes. And his backing band is just as tight and explosive as ever, especially given that Rosenstock recruited Chris Farren, Laura Stevenson, the Canadian punk band PUP and more for backing vocals. Now if you're drawing a comparison to WORRY. I can see why some might consider POST- a little less eclectic - there's no out-of-nowhere ska digression - but his choice to infuse more songs like 'TV Stars' and '9/10' with pianos and prominent buzzy synths do add to a slightly more measured tone. Hell, even the songs that show more of their hardcore influence in their brevity and speed feel a little more refined and sharpened in terms of the melodic hook - I'd say this is the record with the most pronounced pop sheen, but then you get the a low-end full of clashing, noisy cymbals and grinding bass grooves that add just the right texture to really balance out the mix, especially with songs like 'USA' that throw in what sound like tremolo riffs to fill out the melody. And for as much as this album is more willing to slow down or break into anthemic clapping singalongs, it needs that galloping groove on songs like 'Yr Throat', or the jangling ragged fuzz on 'All This Useless Energy', or that grimy anchoring foundation on 'Let Them Win' that will eventually break into fragile acoustics and a synth-driven, borderline ambient outro that strangely feels like one of the best ways a record like this can end. Now not all of the compositional choices worked - the keening ringing throughout 'Melba' definitely didn't fit all that well with the song's pop punk sheen, the midtempo rhythm on 'Banging My Head Against A Wall' probably could have afforded to go a little faster, and I really do wish the solos on songs like 'Powerlessness' had a bit more room to breathe, especially when there are songs like 'USA' and 'Let Them Win' that do take their time - but really, that's nitpicking.

And of course, the much bigger story comes in the content, the record Rosenstock wrote in a flurry on his own in the Catskill Mountains right after the election - and there's a part of me that feels the haste shows through. It very much feels like a snapshot of the whirling emotions that came in the first months of 2017, with the gift of empathy that shows Rosenstock trying to choke back anger at otherwise "normal" people in his world, he just needs to know if they did it and if they understood the consequences. Hell, 'USA' snaps to their perspective as they wait to see all the grand promises of 2016 fulfilled... but now in the aftermath they're just tired and bored, just wanting everything to snap back to normal and accept society's defined roles... and while Rosenstock is hyper-conscious of the ease of that temptation - 'Melba' is all about that desperate escape into rose-colored nostalgia - he can't do it. It genuinely enrages him on 'Yr Throat' that he can talk for hours on stuff that means nothing but when it comes to speak out his anxiety holds him back; he tries to hold things together in the aftermath of a protest as he's sick of being alone, too wound up with nervous energy; and in looking to celebrities on 'TV Stars', he balances his acidic hook with the knowledge that so many of them are divorced from real consequences and have lost a sense of perspective and themselves constantly stepping into other roles. And here's the important thing: while it's empathetic to the people on the other side caught up in this, he sure as hell isn't giving much time to those who refuse to listen, or who attempt to divide and dehumanize people on his side - or to quote him on 'Let Them Win', those who 'never empathize with anyone but themselves'

And yet when it comes to the content, it can't help but feel like it's missing the added subtextual layers that made WORRY. so effective. Sure, you can make the argument that sometimes stripping out the complexity is needed to make those anthems punch, or when you have exhausted tunes that are just looking for a moment of connection like 'Powerlessness' and '9/10' - they do fit the emotional throughline of the record. Hell, that emotional throughline is one reason why the extended ambient outro of 'Let Them Win' works, a moment of resolve and peace found out of the anxious chaos. And I get not overloading the details to add some longevity or universality - even though the album title didn't add anything after the hyphen because we all know what this record is 'post-' from. But I can't help but feel if the record was going to take structural risks it would push a little harder in the content too - a few of these tunes can't help but feel a tad undercooked, or only loosely tied to the idea at the album's core. They work because of the emotional subtext, I just wish more of the text backed it up.

But still, for the first album out of the gate this is a damn solid start for 2018, with tight hooks, killer production and mixing, and enough emotional nuance to make this an easy sell to any punk or indie rock fan. Very light 8/10, easily on the cusp of greatness, the sort of fiercely relevant punk from a veteran who knows how to surprise and deliver, definitely deserving of your time - check it out!

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