“A concept album about economic anxiety.” That was what I called WORRY., the last album from Long Island pop-punk auteur Jeff Rosenstock back when it came out. A month later, “economic anxiety” became a buzzy term, a way for media professionals to attempt to explain how our country had just shockingly elected an incompetent racist dickcheese blowhard to the highest office in the land. Now “economic anxiety” means something other than stressing out about no longer being able to afford to rent an apartment in a major American city. Now those two words are inextricably linked with white racism, with millions’ willingness to commit to something like national suicide because they don’t like having to press 1 for English. And so now, less than a year and a half later, Rosenstock is back with another concept album, this one about attempting to function in an America that feels like that episode of The Twilight Zone where everyone is constantly trying to keep an all-powerful little kid happy.
On “USA,” the seven-minute opening sprint from Rosenstock’s new album POST-, Rosenstock looks around at the people he encounters on the road while touring: The gas-station clerk, the guy driving his family around in a minivan. These are people with their own complex inner lives. You can’t just look at them and know things about them. But living in America in 2018 means looking at these strangers and wondering if they’re the enemy, if they helped plunge us into this new paranoid hell. Rosenstock doesn’t want to look at them like that, but he can’t help it: “But please be honest / Tell me, was it you? / I won’t hate you / I just need to know.” As the song builds up to its raging conclusion, Rosenstock and a mob of friends and collaborators (including fellow pop-punkers like Laura Stevenson and Chris Farren) howl, “We’re tired, we’re bored,” and it sounds a lot like “the tired, the poor,” since invoking the inscription on the Statue Of Liberty has somehow become a political act now. Then they all chant, “Et tu, USA,” and that sounds a lot like “F-U, USA.” Same difference, really.
POST- is a personal album, not a manifesto. For at least a few songs, Rosenstock focuses exclusively on his own mental wellbeing, with the constant churn of technocratic late-capitalism humming along in the background, as on the weepy piano-ballad in which he imagines a loved one falling asleep streaming different TV shows with a different person instead of him. But for the most part, the state of the world and the state of Rosenstock’s soul are intertwined. The album isn’t about Trump, exactly. It’s about the attempt to live healthy adult lives in this new world — about recognizing everything that’s happening and still wanting meaningful personal interactions. “Meet me at the Polish bar, I’ll be the one looking at my phone / Shaking like a nervous kid, absolutely terrified of being alone,” Rosenstock warns. Then, a few minutes later, he laments, “These overwhelming distractions lead to powerlessness / And I feel too weak to walk it off.”
Distractions are a big theme on POST-. Where, on WORRY., Rosenstock sang about watching the world reducing him to a number and a revenue stream, POST- finds him doing the same thing to himself. It’s an album about finding shelter in petty little trivia as the world burns around you, about recognizing that you’re missing the big picture and failing to find any real refuge in your pet obsessions but doing it anyway because everything else makes you feel even more lost and shut down: “I’ll ramble endlessly on pointless rattling in my head / First-person shooter games, guitar tones, ELO arrangements / The differences in an MP3 and a vinyl record that you can hear / But when it means something, I always disappear.” On a song pointedly called “Powerlessness,” Rosenstock sings about going to a protest, about the feeling of euphoria that can come from pushing back: “We marched on the Interstate and blocked the cops / The echoes of the flash grenades rang in our ears as we moved along.” But he also sings about the hollowness that comes when you’re done marching, when you’re worried that you didn’t really accomplish anything: “After a couple of days, the fire that I thought would burn it all down was all gone.”
Fully a quarter of POST-‘s 40 minutes is given over to “Let Them Win,” the album-ending anthem about refusing to give any ground to the assholes: “We’re not gonna let them win, oh no,” he and his friends chant over and over. But there’s a fatalism at work there, as if Rosenstock knows that this whole shit is doomed and that there’s nothing we can do to stop it. That fatalism is there in the song’s title, the “we’re not gonna” noticeably absent, and in the way it ends — fading off into five minutes of blissed-out wordless drones, sounding something like acceptance setting in.
So this is some dark shit. But if the album’s lyrics are hopeless and fatalistic, the music is something else. Rosenstock isn’t a singer-songwriter. He’s a shouter, a bleater, working in a genre of music that positively delights in its own uncoolness. Last year, at the Pitchfork Music Festival, I watched Rosenstock play a set that worked as a gleeful repudiation of everything around it, an instantly legendary mid-afternoon mosh-up. (Second-favorite piece of stage banter: “Sincere shoutout to the person at Pitchfork who got fired for letting us play this festival!” Favorite piece of stage banter: “Seventy-five hundred! Dollars! For us! To play! This festival!” See, you can violate norms for good as well as for evil.) That same energy is all over POST-, its bouncy riffs and braying hooks careening off of each other with joyous urgency.
It’s not quite as ambitious or orchestral as what Rosenstock was doing on WORRY., but this is still an album of sunny, singalong-heavy turn-of-the-century emo-punk that opens with a seven-minute song and closes with an 11-minute one. For those of us who had formative musical experiences when this music was having its pop moment in the sun, there’s an instinctive rush in hearing it done so well. And in using this straight-ahead, anachronistic bash-it-out music to reflect layered and complicated right-now fears and anxieties, Rosenstock pulls off some kind of magic trick. With no forewarning, Rosenstock gave POST- away to the world for free on New Year’s Day, as if he knew that we’d all need this little shot of catharsis. Hopefully, this latest Rosenstock triumph isn’t just the lead-in to some other international calamity.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Maxo Kream’s pointed, intense Houston rap memoir Punken.
• Camila Cabello’s as-yet-unheard pop-star coronation movie Camila.
• Typhoon’s sweepingly melancholy post-rocker Offerings.
• Shame’s grimy UK rock debut Songs Of Praise.
• BØRNS’ expensive sad-popper Blue Madonna.
• Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s reliably churning Wrong Creatures.
• Jonny Greenwood’s Phantom Thread score.
• The novelty-song compilation Dr. Demento: Covered In Punk.
• Panda Bear’s A Day With The Homies EP.
• Jono Ma & Dreems’ The Dreemas EP.