Jeff Rosenstock comes with some built-in barriers. He sings in a nasal bleat that, when he’s really excited, turns into a strangulated squawk. He packs his songs with dinky drum machines and chintzy synths that whiz off in every direction. His gang-chant sing-alongs belong within the pop-punk tradition, but sometimes, they sound like cheap versions of Broadway musicals. He packs lots and lots of words into his songs, and those words plainly hint at big and messy ideas, at a kind of cleverness that can be relentless and oppressive.
Rosenstock spent a good chunk of his teens and 20s playing ska-punk in a Long Island band called Arrogant Sons Of Bitches, and those of us who are, like Rosenstock, in our mid-30s will always have a complicated relationship with our collective ska-punk past. He spent the rest of his 20s in a sort of conceptual punk band called Bomb The Music Industry; they gave their music away for free and wrote silly, giddy songs about how the world was fucked. I tried with them, but I couldn’t get into it. And for a while, I couldn’t get into Rosenstock’s solo music, either. I heard one song from his last album, last year’s We Cool?, and decided that this was some pop-punk Ben Folds shit and that it was Not For Me. He’s just a lot. But once you make allowances from his a-lotness, it becomes pretty evident that Rosenstock is a motherfuck of a songwriter, and that WORRY., his new one, is a motherfuck of an album.
I’ll have to dive deeper into Rosenstock’s back catalog to know if it’s all like this, but WORRY. is just a brilliantly written piece of work, an angry and smart and nervous and nasty and cathartic record with some of the realest real-talk lyrics I’ve heard in a long time. WORRY. is, in a lot of ways, a concept album about economic anxiety, about taking a cold and hard look at the world around you and wondering how you’re supposed to survive in it for the next however many decades. There’s one song about staring through the window of an apartment that you can no longer afford, beholding the decorative surfboard that the new guy hung where your records used to be, wondering where you’re going to go from here. There’s another about having a personality crisis at a corporate-sponsored music festival and wondering what you’re doing there, why you’re willfully participating in this fuckery: “Unite against the establishment while drones transmit the images to a server farm in the valley for a culture that will eat its own insides.” It’s heavy shit. I can relate to a whole lot of it. There’s a pretty good chance you can, too.
Rosenstock is a bit of an over-writer, but he makes that work. He comes up with these pithy turns of phrase that hint at a deeply wrong thing happening in the way we’re living at this exact moment in time: “They’re pushing you out in the name of progress and selling your memories to the tourists”; “Born as a data mine for targeted marketing, and no one will listen until you become a hashtag or meme.” And then he surrounds them in self-deprecation, entirely cognizant of the idea that these are first-world problems and that nothing about them is unique. (Rosenstock has a naturally whiny pop-punk voice, and he seems pretty self-aware about that, too.) And, as the album goes on, he punches home the idea that we’re all living, falling in love, and trying to find our way, amidst this weird internet-age cultural rubble, that genuine connections are harder to come by and thus even more precious: “These are the Amazon days / We are the binge watching age and we’ll be stuck in a screen until our phones fall asleep / I am never letting go of you.” It’s not a Luddite album, exactly. It’s an album that acknowledges the ways that technology has become a tool for late capitalism to continue draining most of us of our energies. It’s bleak, and it’s also human.
There’s nothing cool about these sentiments; it’s essentially an impotent album-length what the fuck do we do now? freakout. And the music isn’t cool, either. Rosenstock works in the medium of big, loud, chest-thumping heart-on-sleeve emo and pop-punk. There is very little style in his style. There are moments on the album where he lurches into early-’80s hardcore or late-’90s ska-punk (I sort of love that there’s a full-on ska-punk song on here), but these genre-shifts just feel like slight tweaks to his regular attack. Honestly, his voice is so singular that he could be singing opera or luxuriant R&B, and it would still sound completely like him. (Also, it’s a good thing that he is not singing opera or luxuriant R&B. As a pure vocalist, he’s what you might call limited.) He and his band play with a hurtling-forward intensity, like they just can’t hold in the stuff that he’s got to sing. And his hooks are huge, grand, unapologetically catchy things. He loves his gang-sing-along vocals, and by maybe the third listen to the album, there’s a strong chance you’ll be half-consciously belting those hooks out right along with the record.
In his big ideas and his gift for chestburster hooks, Rosenstock reminds me a bit of one of his fellow overthinkers, Titus Andronicus main man Patrick Stickles. But Stickles has a burly howl of a voice, and his big influences, like Springsteen and the Pogues and the Replacements, are generally timeless things. Rosenstock has a sound that’s more built around goofy ’90s mall-rock, and you could well feel an initial flush of embarrassment if you’re listening to WORRY. when somebody walks in on you. But once you acclimate yourself to it, that proud and unflinching uncoolness is a big part of its appeal. If you’ve ever stressed about your bank balance or your internet consumption — if you’re constantly living in terror of an account-overdrawn email or a “you’ve used all your available data” text — and if you have any love in your heart for board-shorts Warped Tour music, then WORRY. is an album you need in your life. After all, coolness is a cultural construct. Catharsis is real.
WORRY. is out 10/14 on SideOneDummy.
• Swet Shop Boys’ sharp, fun, aware debut Cashmere.
• Crying’s chaotic, inventive Beyond The Fleeting Gales.
• Conor Oberst’s back-to-basics move Ruminations.
• Gucci Mane’s second post-prison comeback album Woptober.
• Kings Of Leon’s handsome-man brooder Walls.
• Jamie Lidell’s idiosyncratic retro-soul strutter Building A Beginning.
• Moby & The Void Pacific Choir’s electro-punk experiment These Systems Are Failing.
• MONO’s expansive, instrumental Requiem For Hell.
• Super Unison’s blistering post-hardcore debut Auto.
• Jagwar Ma’s far-out dance-rocker Every Now & Then.
• The Dillinger Escape Plan’s math-metal goodbye Dissociation.
• Douglas Dare’s chilly, melodic Aforger.
• Duchess Says’ raging dance-punker Sciences Nouvelles.
• Purling Hiss’ garage-rock rager High Bias.
• Jojo’s bright cult-pop comeback Mad Love.
• Soul Clap’s playfully synthy self-titled dance LP.
• Gurr’s sunny, hooky debut In My Head.
• Oval’s cerebral electronic LP Popp.
• Powell’s abrasive, noisy dance album Sport.
• Natural Sway’s loping indie rock debut Sweet Life.
• From Indian Lakes’ shimmering, intricate Everything Feels Better Now.
• Zeds Dead’s guest-heavy dance-party Northern Lights.
• Personal Space’s sloppily chill Ecstatic Burbs.
• Two Door Cinema Club’s wriggly rocker Gameshow.
• Kevin Hart’s novelty rap mixtape What Now? (The Mixtape).
• Suzanne Vega’s off-Broadway soundtrack Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers.
• Départe’s icy, precise black metaller Failure, Subside.
• Emylin Brodsky’s conceptually heavy orch-popper Emylin Brodsky’s Digestion.
• I Have A Tribe’s velvety debut Beneath A Yellow Moon.
• Greys’ companion-piece album Outer Heaven.
• Johnny Jewel’s soundtrack to the movie Home.
• The Elliott Smith tribute compilation Say Yes!
• Cavern Of Anti-Matter’s I’m The Unknown EP.