Have you ever been through rock-show fatigue? It’s happened to me a couple of times. Here’s how it happens: It’s, let’s say, a Tuesday night, and a band you like is in town. You’re not really sure you want to go. A big part of you would rather stay home and watch TV and sleep. But you like this band, and you don’t know when they’ll be in town again, and maybe your friends want to go. So you drag yourself out the door, hoping for something transcendent to happen. Nothing transcendent happens. Instead, you find yourself maybe slightly high or slightly drunk, standing there and wondering why you’re there at all. The club is maybe half-full, and nobody seems excited to be there. The people in the band are having an off-night, and they know it, and they don’t care enough to disguise it. The people in the crowd stare blankly, and maybe a couple of people try to do something that looks a bit like dancing. You look around, and the whole crowd is old guys, or maybe it’s prematurely old guys, 23-year-olds with glasses and big beards. And you wonder why you’re there, why you ever go to shows like this, why you thought you could find anything resembling excitement on a night like this. I bring all this up because there is a cure, and that cure is PWR BTTM.
Earlier this year, PWR BTTM came to my small Southern town, to the same venue where I’ve gotten that rock-show fatigue more than once. And I dragged myself out, not sure that was where I wanted to be. But in a room that I’ve usually seen full of tired old white guys, I saw a packed-in crowd of kids, many of them outwardly queer, all of them extremely excited to be there. The band was excited, too. Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce, the two New Yorkers who make up PWR BTTM, were having fun. They were dressed up, Hopkins covered in glitter and Bruce carefully made-up. They tossed jokes back and forth like pros. They gushed about how excited they were for the people in the crowd to hear their new album, the one they’d just announced, and then they played a hefty chunk of the album, trusting the crowd to be just as excited as they were. And they did all this on the strength of one DIY indie album, one that was a couple of years old at that point, that found its audience almost entirely through word of mouth. When Bruce sang “I Wanna Boi” late in the set, it was a massive and cathartic whole-crowd singalong, like Fugazi doing “Waiting Room” or Rancid doing “Roots Radicals.” People even sang along with the random characters in the email address. It was really something.
It was plainly obvious from that show that PWR BTTM had something special — something that they hadn’t yet captured on record. Ugly Cherries, the duo’s 2015 debut, was full of personality and big riffs and good tunes, but it was also rough and rushed and sloppy and impassioned, the way DIY debuts are supposed to be. Pageant, the new one, is the sound of PWR BTTM making good on all that promise. Pageant is one of those rare, enormously rewarding examples of a band coming up from the underground with a bright new sound and then pushing that sound up into the stratosphere. It’s a good band leaping for greatness and sticking the landing. There’s nothing rough or unfinished about Pageant. Where Ugly Cherries had fuzzed-up guitars and jittery drums and occasional swoops of cheap synth, Pageant has cellos and French horns and acoustic guitars and vocals from Hopkins’ opera-singer mother. But it never sounds cluttered or overproduced, and it keeps the fiery, amped-up spark that made the band special in the first place.
One great thing about PWR BTTM: Like Sleater-Kinney or Fugazi or Hüsker Dü (or, hell, the Beatles), they’re a band with two true leaders, two people whose distinctive voices and styles build on one another, adding new layers and dynamics to their records. Hopkins and Bruce switch off the lead-guitar-and-vocals role, with whoever’s not up front stepping back to take over the drums. I don’t know if the two trade off the songs they’re writing, or if those songs are all collaborations, but both singers seem to take ownership over the songs they’re singing. They reflect two different personalities. Hopkins sings about heartbreak and confusion in heartbroken and confused ways. Hopkins’ voice is a halting quaver. And Hopkins is also a florid, expert guitarist, one who’s especially fond of Angus Young finger-tap riffage. Bruce, meanwhile, is funnier and brattier. Bruce’s songs come across more as generational anthems — bolder, more direct, and more proudly silly as well. There’s crossover, of course; Hopkins is plenty capable of delivering an anthem like “Big Beautiful Day,” while Bruce is plenty capable of getting all internal and personal. But both singers complement each other, and because both voices feel equal, there’s a dynamic range to PWR BTTM that I don’t hear in too many bands that are built around one central figure.
But one of the magical things about Pageant is the way all the songs — even the quietest, most personal ones — sound like anthems. PWR BTTM write huge, instantly memorable singalong choruses, and they’ve got both the melodic chops and the lyrical precision to make their own small stories feel bigger. They’re also two queer people writing about queerness and identity. Sometimes, there’s no political layer to those songs besides the fact that the songs exist at all. Hopkins sings a lot about breakups, and they bring the sort of detail and focus that only the best emo songwriters can conjure: “Was I silly to love you with the force of my heart? / One that’s queer and alive and so sad from the start?” But when they turn their focus outward, on a cold and fucked-up world, they do real damage: “There are men in every town who live to bring you down / Make themselves feel bigger making you feel small.” And at their best, Hopkins combines the two, showing the way these vast societal forces can completely dominate one person’s thoughts. On “LOL,” in maybe the most quotable moment on the whole album, Hopkins sings, “When you are queer, you are always 19.”
Bruce’s anthems can be goofier; “Answer My Text,” a blindingly sharp novelty about an inattentive crush, is both the catchiest song that PWR BTTM have ever written and, to my mind, the single catchiest rock song that 2017 has yet given us. But Bruce also sings one of the most poignant lyrics I’ve ever heard about gender dysphoria: “Who would I be if they had never taken my body? / Drawn a blue box around it and put a toy gun in my hand? / Would I get such a thrill out of being so girly and naughty? / Would I be so determined to be anything but a man?” And then Bruce sings another one that’s just as powerful: “A daydream of a girl who looks just like me / Or at least the way I’d look if I were her / I think about the way that she would feel to be / And I think it might feel right, but I’m not sure.” But Bruce is tough, too, and “Sissy” is a truly great roar of both defiance and empathy: “Do you wanna ask me something? / I see the way you look at me / It’s all gonna be fine / If you stop staring, you’ll be able to see.”
Even with all these strings and horns around them, PWR BTTM are a punk band. They play big and bold and snotty melodies, and they play them fast, with fervor and rigor and a sense of fun. The album keeps hurtling forward, saying a whole lot in just over half an hour and then rushing for the exit while your head’s still spinning. I’ve had Pageant on heavy repeat for more than a month, and I still get excited when the opening notes of album opener “Silly” ring out. For a band this sharp and fun and giddy and badass to come out at this moment, when the entire United States government seems determined to roll back whatever rights and protections it can, is almost too perfect. Even in a vacuum, Pageant would be one hell of a rock record. At this particular moment, it absolutely bursts with urgency and vitality and purpose. With an album like this around, there’s no reason to worry about rock-show fatigue. There is still so much great, fun, important stuff that rock music can do, and Pageant is proof of that.
Pageant is out 5/12 on Polyvinyl. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out today:
• Girlpool’s fuzzy, intense, gorgeous Powerplant.
• Paramore’s fired-up pop reinvention After Laughter.
• Todd Rundgren’s guest-heavy studio odyssey White Knight.
• Marco Pavé’s thoughtful, hard-thudding protest-rap concept album Welcome to Grc Lnd.
• First Hate’s dark, resonant synthpop debut A Prayer For The Unemployed.
• AFI/No Doubt supergroup Dreamcar’s gleaming, synthy self-titled debut.
• Spencer Radcliffe & Everyone Else’s wide-open rocker Enjoy The Great Outdoors.
• Los Colognes’s lush, textured new waver The Wave.
• Danzig’s growly blues-metal comeback Black Laden Crown.
• Paul Weller’s smooth and authoritative rocker Pageant.
• Lo-fi veteran Joey Agresta’s Let’s Not Talk About Music.
• Pretty man Harry Styles’ lush self-titled debut.
• Foxygen co-leader Jonathan Rado’s full-length cover of Born To Run.
• Chromatics mastermind Johnny Jewel’s unreleased-music collection Windswept.
• The cartoon compilation The Bob’s Burgers Music Album.
• Hazel English’s double EP Just Give In / Never Going Home.
• Heaven’s Lonesome Town EP.
• Amber Mark’s 3:33 am EP.
• Chemtrails’ Headless Pin Up Girl EP.