Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Home Is Where The Whaler

Wax Bodega
Wax Bodega

I don’t think you need me to tell you that a song called “Everyday Feels Like 9/11” is not meant to be taken literally. Home Is Where frontwoman Brandon MacDonald was in elementary school when the Twin Towers fell and thus is unlikely to have a solid grasp on a day that was actually just September 11, 2001 for most adults on the East Coast, at least for a few waking hours. On a blindingly bright Tuesday morning in Charlottesville, I had enough time to attend a 9AM lecture, buy The Blueprint and discuss the A+ review I planned to submit when I saw my newspaper editor at the gym. When the devastating enormity of the situation finally dawned on my friends and I, we panicked, called our parents, prayed for the people who knew working in DC, and – because we started drinking almost immediately – felt an odd, wholly unprecedented rush of patriotic pride before we passed out; we stirred back to life the next morning hoping classes got canceled.

But in the middle of Home Is Where’s sophomore album, the volcanic “Everyday Feels Like 9/11” is followed by a piano interlude where everyone goes back to work on September 12 and the previous day becomes 9/11. At first, the date was shorthand for an immediate future where any kind of introspection on American exceptionalism is annihilated by an animal hunger for immediate retaliation. Now, it’s understood as the beginning of an ongoing era where our two political parties will find no common ground whatsoever, except when it comes to funding an endless War on increasingly vague Terror; what once began as a dragnet for Al-Qaeda is now likely to ensnare protestors at Cop City. MacDonald doesn’t need to be a geopolitical expert to speak on the America shaped by the aftermath of 9/11 – it’s the only one she’s ever really known.

The Whaler begins and ends with warped tape effects, signifying its message as much as any of MacDonald’s impressionistic wordplay – for the past 22 years, America has been stuck in a disintegration loop of atrocity, anger and absurdity that has become increasingly compressed and degraded, to the point where these things don’t even have to happen in order anymore. Recall that George W. Bush was seen as a paragon of compassionate conservatism for waiting 26 days to initiate military intervention in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Home Is Where’s native state of Florida has become an experimental dungeon of preemptive, punitive measures based on no tangible wrongdoing – as trans women, MacDonald and co-songwriter Tilley Komorny might get arrested for using the bathroom when they come back home.

MacDonald and Komorny’s experience living as trans women remains foundational to Home Is Where’s viewpoint, though more as subtext here than it was on 2021’s I Became Birds, and especially dissection lesson, their momentous split with fellow trans firebrands Record Setter (see: the climactic “Names” lyric “I’m a woman, suck my dick”). While there had been plenty of exciting emo albums released over the past several years, I Became Birds was the first since, say, the Hotelier’s Home, Like NoPlace Is There, to feel truly visionary – the arrival of a charismatic, confrontational voice who risked immediate backlash, challenging the genre to reconsider its default viewpoints. When MacDonald laid out the taxonomy of emo’s fifth wave in 2021, it wasn’t just an expression of love and respect for her peers and a means of organizing the various micro-scenes that had bubbled up during the pandemic. Maybe lashing out against Modern Baseball and Title Fight was selective and reductive trolling of the preceding emo revival, but the central point held, a call to evolve or die. In the time since, nearly every worthwhile band in the genre has strayed far from the “straight guys with capos and Telecasters” template.

I do have a degree of hesitance describing The Whaler as Home Is Where’s Goodness, even though the latter is my favorite album of the past decade; for all of its praise within more mainstream spheres, Goodness was met with a chillier reception by emo diehards who mostly seemed to want another “Your Deep Rest.” The Whaler is over twice as long as its predecessor, which packed so many hooks and energy into its 18 minutes that few could deny Home Is Where’s insistence that it was a six-song album. The bristly, brazen anthems remain; lead single “yes! yes! a thousand times yes!” is two in one, a catchy and crestfallen dance-punk groove interrupted by a glimpse of Home is Where as a soaring post-rock act. But these moments play a lesser role within a sound that has become more expansive and idiosyncratic.

Expressing its title as a gang vocal chant, a playground taunt and a temper tantrum, opener “Skin Meadow” evades literal meaning throughout its five minutes while establishing the album’s dominant lyrical theme of hallucinatory body horror. “Lily Pad Pupils” connects Home Is Where’s outer boundaries – backwoods country and blackened screamo – with a brooding, banjo-flecked midsection that evokes Panhandle dread without resorting to Deliverance tropes. Similarly, the first half of “Daytona 500” suggests Home Is Where as Wednesday’s weirdo Florida cousins, before their dirtbag alt-country gives way to a disorienting thicket of tremolo guitars bearing MacDonald’s best quotable: “The end of the world is taking forever.”

But the elevator pitch of Home Is Where still rings true; think Cap’n Jazz on Elephant 6, a rerouted emo timeline that runs from Bob Dylan to Tim Kinsella to Isaac Brock to Jeff Mangum, a whimsy that turns both surly and surreal. Their preferred instrumentation – acoustic guitars run through distortion pedals, rusted harmonicas, dusty theremins – underscore MacDonald’s obsession with decay as proof of life and The Whaler is rife with the stench of death. Drunk drivers look no different than possums when scraped off the roadside; severed antlers serve as home decor and tree branches are entwined by human entrails; the landscape is littered with pigeon shit and stale communion crackers; dead racoons get pulled out of the trash and dead humans rise out of the vanishing Florida wetlands. In Home Is Where’s neck of the woods, it’s growing increasingly difficult to live or die with any kind of dignity.

Home Is Where have talked a good game about the concept here, so… what does this all have to do with 9/11? The Whaler isn’t about the actual day of 9/11, no more than In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was actually an album about the Holocaust – they’re not plot points, so much as thematic binding for a surrealistic, folky punk (but not folk-punk) opus about humanity’s search for meaning in the face of its most horrific excess and often, its failure. But Jeff Mangum read The Diary Of A Young Girl as a 28-year old and earnestly longed for a time machine; The Whaler is not haunted by Jesus Christ or Anne Frank, but Chris Farley and Dale Earnhardt, icons of American excess beloved for lifestyles that determined their deathstyles with pinpoint accuracy.

Though teens will forever be drawn to the boundless romanticism of Neutral Milk Hotel, that project was insulated by their relegation of human cruelty to the distant past and Elephant 6’s utopian collectivism. But MacDonald is writing about an era of which she is a product, one where Mangum’s starry-eyed outlook and desire to live off the grid can seem antiquated or even naive. “This counterfeit reality/ A perfect copy of a forgery/ And after all these years, I still look a lot like me,” MacDonald yelps on what feels like The Whaler’s thesis statement — a pessimist and shitposter at heart, finding little in their lifetime worth saving. On I Became Birds, Home Is Where might have appeared to be idealists, compressing an entire decade of transformative experience – escaping Scientology, shuttling in and out of mental hospitals as a teen, transitioning genders – into galvanizing music of constant momentum, its vivid, lysergic language expressing the feeling captured by another Floridian, trans-punk icon: “There’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me.” The Whaler is an indelible statement of equal and opposite force: MacDonald taking stock of a fearful, regressive country imploding right in front of us all.

The Whaler is out 6/16 on Wax Bodega.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Queens Of The Stone Age’s In Times New Roman…
• King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s PetroDragonic Apocalypse; Or, Dawn Of Eternal Night: An Annihilation Of Planet Earth And The Beginning Of Merciless Damnation
• Killer Mike’s Michael
• Hand Habits’ Sugar The Bruise
• Terrace Martin’s Fine Tune
• Boris & Uniform’s Bright New Disease
• Yusuf / Cat Stevens’ King Of A Land
• Kool Keith’s Black Elvis 2
• Deer Tick’s Emotional Contracts
• Bonny Doon’s Let There Be Music
• Fust’s Genevieve
• Man On Man’s Provincetown
• Django Django’s Off Planet
• Jack River’s Endless Summer
• Maisie Peters’ The Good Witch
• SunYears’ Come Fetch My Soul!
• Rodeo Boys’ Home Movies
• Creep Show’s Yawning Abyss
• Meshell Ndegeocello’s The Omnichord Real Book
• Creeping Death’s Boundless Domain
• Bettye LaVette’s ‘LaVette!
• Son Volt’s Day Of The Doug
• Amnesia Scanner & Freeka Tet’s STROBE.RIP
• May Rio’s French Bath
• Royal Thunder’s Rebuilding The Mountain
• Burt Hussell’s High Desert
• Ben Howard’s Is It?
• Pelicanman’s Planet Chernobyl
• Asake’s Work Of Art
• She’s Goodpaster
• Gloorp’s Gloorp
• Peter Lewis’ Imagination
• Gov’t Mule’s Peace…Like A River
• Gracie Abrams’ Good Riddance (Deluxe)
• Wild Up’s Julius Eastman Vol. 3: If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?
• Pet Shop Boys’ SMASH – The Singles 1985-2020
• Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga: A Companion, The People’s Key: A Companion, and Noise Floor (Rarities 1998-2005): A Companion
• Drive-By Truckers’ The Complete Dirty South
• Texas’ The Very Best Of 1989 – 2023
• Spoon’s Memory Dust EP
• waterbaby’s Foam EP
• Clearbody’s Bend Into A Blur EP

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