“I haven’t found the courage to listen to your last message to me.” That’s Touché Amoré frontman Jeremy Bolm, partway through his band’s new album, Stage Four. He’s singing to his mother, who died of cancer in 2014. She’s the “you.” The whole album is about her, and about Bolm’s reactions to her death, and a pretty huge chunk of it is sung directly to her. The one line, about the message, is devastating in part because it’s so simple and identifiable. It’s not a huge leap to imagine yourself keeping that last message stored on your phone, unheard, constantly stressing that you’re going to drop your phone in a puddle and that message is going to remain unheard forever. As “Skyscraper,” the album’s last song, fades out, we hear that message. Bolm included it on the album. It’s not what we want to hear from a message that comes from beyond the grave. It’s not some heartfelt burst of emotion, some piece of sage advice. It’s just a simple mundane thing about picking up a prescription from CVS. And maybe that’s why it resonates the way it does, why I have to take a few seconds to hear myself breathe after Stage Four ends.
Touché Amoré have made a whole lot of great music in just under a decade of existence, but if there’s been a knock on them that whole time, it’s been that they’ve always been so fucking serious. Touché Amoré aren’t quite a hardcore band, but they aren’t quite a post-hardcore band, either. Bolm sings in a stragulated yelp-roar, a full-throated cookie-monster wail. In the past, when other singers have used that delivery, they’ve used it to convey toughness or togetherness or brotherhood. It’s been an instrument of strength. Bolm uses his as an instrument of weakness, describing his own doubts and fears. He sprinkled 2011’s Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me, which had been Touché Amoré’s best album up until now, with intense, teeth-gritted spoken-word passages. Behind him, the California band works up a grand clangor. The guitars will build a bit of Explosions In The Sky-style melodic majesty before they’ll bring it all crashing down, and then they’ll do it again and again. That sound — wounded emotional aggression — is nothing new in underground music, but I’m not sure I’ve heard a band that’s had it so innately mastered since early Thursday. And you’d have to be pretty fucking heartless to call Stage Four “too serious.” It’s a subject that demands utmost seriousness. And Bolm absolutely delivers. He commits, interrogating himself and his own guilt and shame, delivering an absolutely bruising and cathartic document of what it’s like to live with loss and grief.
The concrete details in Stage Four are what sticks with me. There’s that line about avoiding the voicemail, or the one about needing to skip track two every time he listens to Benji because it hits too close to home. One entire song, “Eight Seconds,” tells the story of the night of his mother’s death. Bolm and his band are playing a show in Gainesville. He gets a message on his phone, and he’s pretty sure this is it. But he avoids calling the number back. He hangs out with people at the show. He kills time. And finally, he leaves the venue and crosses the street, and this is what he hears: “She passed away about an hour ago while you were onstage living the dream.” There’s no way anyone was cruel enough to actually say those words to Bolm — at least, I hope there’s no way — but those are the words he heard, and that’s what matters.
Throughout, Bolm shows a real writerly sense of economy, and he also shows a lot of courage in talking about what he’s going through. The album’s opening song, “Flowers And You,” is about avoiding conversations with his mother during the final days, about storming out of rooms when he just can’t handle it, and then about feeling the guilt of not having spent those few minutes with his mom instead: “I didn’t know what to say just watching you wither away.” Later on, after his mother dies, he crashes his car, and he wonders if her protection is the reason he’s OK: “I know she’s looking out for me the way she said she would.” He deals with the weird, awkward conversations he’s had with his mother about her religion and his lack thereof: “I couldn’t worship the god that let her fall apart.” And he leaves us with images of real, lasting, painful beauty: “You left a hole in this earth, and you paid for it up front / I had to fill it with dirt while your friends sang the song.” And then he sings the song, sounding utterly wracked with pain: “May the Lord, mighty God, bless and keep you forever / Grant you peace, perfect peace, courage in every endeavor.” It’s just brutal.
As with Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, this is a case where a punk band’s singer is dealing with some heavy, life-changing personal shit, and where the rest of the band steps up and becomes its best self. Touché Amoré have always been a hard, dynamic, powerful group of musicians. And on Stage Four, they find new levels of climactic clang. They sound bigger and louder and grander, and there’s a richness and a detail to the album’s sound that wasn’t quite there before. In an odd twist, this is Touché Amoré’s first album for Epitaph, a much bigger label than Deathwish and 6131, the labels that released their albums in the past. And Stage Four sounds grander and more expansive, but it never holds back when it’s time to drop the hammer. If arena hardcore existed, this is how it might sound. And when Bolm comes through at his most direct and destroyed — “like a wave, like the rapture, something you love is gone” — the band matches him, turning it into an anthemic surge. I can’t imaging how these people are going to play these songs live, but I know that there are going to be huge moments when they do.
This happens to be an unbelievably great week for rock music. Cymbals Eat Guitars are releasing the huge, sweeping Pretty Years, an album that would be the subject of this column most other weeks. The aforementioned Against Me! are back with the feverish Shape Shift With Me, and it’s so good that I feel honestly guilty that it’s not my pick for the week. Preoccupations, the former Viet Cong, have gone almost all the way Joy Division on their new self-titled album. And yet the album that meant the most to me this week was the one that cut me the deepest. It wasn’t even really any competition for me. And if you’ve ever lost anyone, it might not be any competition for you, either.
Stage Four is out 9/16 on Epitaph.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Cymbals Eat Guitars’ triumphant, classically melodic Pretty Years.
• Against Me!’s strident, intense punker Shape Shift With Me.
• Preoccupations’ cold, bleak self-titled sophomore LP.
• Mac Miller’s stoned, bubbly The Feminine Divine.
• Bonnie “Prince” Billy/Angel Olsen supergroup Chivalrous Amoekons’ debut Fanatic Voyage.
• AlunaGeorge’s state-of-the-art dance-popper I Remember.
• Usher’s long-awaited R&B-pop return Hard II Love.
• Mykki Blanco’s expressive, experimental Mykki.
• Kool Keith’s weirdo-rap return Feature Magnetic.
• Trentemøller’s slick, gothy Fixion.
• Left & Right’s jittery pop-punker The Yips.
• Die Antwoord’s apparent goodbye Mount Ninji And Da Nice Time Kid.
• Kishi Bashi’s giddy, inventive Sonderlust.
• Psychic TV’s experimental industrial rock return Alienist.
• The Gaslamp Killer’s moody bass odyssey Instrumentalepathy.
• Cyrus Gengras’ retro folk-rocker Fuckin’ Up My Name.
• Johanna Warren’s spare, ghostly Gemini I.
• The Glazzies’ energetic grunge throwback Kill Me Kindly.
• Blue States’ electro-ambient floater Restless Spheres.
• Sin Fang’s woozy, ethereal Spaceland.
• Grift’s atmospheric black metaller Betrayed By The Sun/Häringar.
• Mare Cognitum’s similarly atmospheric black metaller Lumeniferous Aether.
• Willie Nelson’s Ray Price tribute For The Good Times.
• The posthumous Chinx collection Legends Never Die.
• Turnstile’s Move Thru Me EP.
• Entrance’s Promises EP.
• Human People’s Veronica EP.
• MIYNT’s Ep no. 1 EP.
• Sneeze’s Rot EP.