Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Jeff Rosenstock HELLMODE


Jeff Rosenstock makes anthems. It’s what he does. When he declared, “You don’t own me!” on a quirky Bomb The Music Industry! cut in 2005, he made it an anthem. Throughout his career as a Long Island punk hero, ska lifer, and dynamic solo artist, he’s recorded dozens of songs meant to get you moving and shouting. So many videos exist of him moving and shouting — and climbing onto amplifiers to belt out mid-show saxophone solos — that even if you’re not in the crowd, you still want to follow his lead.

What’s always separated Rosenstock is his knack for choosing the right words that, when screamed at the perfect time, can light your soul ablaze: We’re not gonna let them win! and I’ve got dreams!/ Big stupid dreams!/ Dumb fucking dreams! and We’re tired!/ We’re bored! and Not hearing all your shit!/ Don’t waste my fucking time!

Five years ago, as he is wont to do, Rosenstock released multiple anthems on his album POST-, a first-person document of frustration in the Trump era. Most notable are the loud exorcisms that run well past the seven-minute mark. But there’s a quiet one, too. “Nine times out of 10 I’ll be stoned on the subway,” he sings over sympathetic keyboards. An anthem for burnout, “9/10,” remains one of his most-streamed tunes on Spotify. “So many people I know and people I love [are] just stressed out by everything, and I just wanted to write a song like, yeah, me too, bud, and it’s okay,” Rosenstock said at the time.

In 2020, as the pandemic raged and life slowed significantly down, he wrote another song in the same vein. “Caring,” a rare sparse acoustic number, found him evaluating his position. It was kind of an anthem, too. “I wanna wake in a new country/ One without famine or poverty/ No elite,” he sang with gorgeous harmonies from his longtime pal and collaborator Laura Stevenson.

It’s fitting, then, that HELLMODE, his new album out this Friday, picks up more or less where “Caring” left off. Putting it that way is really only half true, as this is still very much a Jeff Rosenstock album. The guitars are boosted and the energy is raw. Add in that Rosenstock laid down its tracks in the same Hollywood studio where System Of A Down recorded Toxicity and you have a ready-made rock narrative.

But HELLMODE — rife with climate anxiety, mental anguish, and tender acoustic moments — essentially has two halves: amplified apprehension and a handful of songs based around the acoustic guitar. The prettiest of these, the pseudo-title track “HEALMODE,” captures the clarity he felt during a rainstorm in Los Angeles, where he relocated in 2020: “Perfect lazy days where all you need is me/ And all I need is you.” It’s the album’s centerpiece for a reason. It’s radical. And of course, it’s an anthem.

For years, Rosenstock’s output was partially defined by him grappling with how much he had or hadn’t “made it.” Both 2015’s We Cool? and 2016’s WORRY. begin with musings about impending mortgages, marriages, and babies. In 2018, he went panoramic with that insecurity, furiously venting American paranoia after the 2016 election. And on 2020’s No Dream, he put the whole chase of fame into perspective, expressing his desire to “line up to watch it crash and burn” and bemoaning his bad knees from years of onstage punk heroics.

As Rosenstock’s career has become more secure, though, he’s seemingly moved away from the questions of his own irrelevance. (He is, in fact, quite relevant now.) When he landed a gig composing music for the Cartoon Network show Craig Of The Creek in 2018, the opportunity brought a welcome new challenge and a chance for stability. He addresses this directly on HELLMODE’s funny and moving “Life Admin,” in which he begs for a change of scenery: “Might go to the desert/ ‘Cause I make enough to/ Fuck off to the desert if I want to.”

But there’s guilt. There’s always guilt. Rosenstock spends sweeping closer “3 Summers” adding what sounds like 100 layers of fuzzy guitars to a reflection on how his personal choices affect the planet — and what that does to his own psyche:

Don’t you pretend
The world is treating us all equal
When a person can starve as another one hops in a
Lyft plus to JFK
To Europe, expenses paid
I know it’s not okay
But I still participate

Despite this rumination and the name of the record at large, HELLMODE is Rosenstock’s first foray into aging gracefully. In fact, admitting that he’s a part of a much larger ecosystem of harm that predates any of us is aging gracefully. It’s easy to direct that fury inward, and Rosenstock has his moments. He bemoans his “annoying stupid fucking face” and stressfully declares “I am just an avatar of someone I’ve invented.” But he’s learned to temper it with tenderness, especially on the acoustic-led numbers that spot HELLMODE’s second half.

The narrative is tempting — New York punk icon absconds to the West Coast and unplugs both his guitar and mind. To say he’s mellowed out would be factually incorrect; the first song here finds him wondering out loud, “Will you still love me after I’ve fucked up?” over a high-BPM wave of fury. After that, he sings about his own mind being a bomb. Rosenstock hasn’t calmed down. He’s simply directed much of his own angst toward action, even when that feels impossible. “What’s it gonna take/ To guide the brush fires to eradicate/ Every single trace of these/ Scumfuck white supremacist shitlords?” he sings on “Soft Living.”

Sometimes that motivation yields peppy power-pop songs like “Graveyard Song” and “Life Admin” as well as the gorgeous “HEALMODE,” all of which are still speckled with slight hints of existential dread. You can’t live in LA in 2023 and ignore the ever-present reality of wildfires, smog, and now, earthquakes hitting during hurricane warnings. Natural disasters and environmental ruin pop up again and again on HELLMODE; images of raining ash and fog blotting out the sky deliver an apocalyptic vibe. But then there’s another acoustic guitar.

The HELLMODE vs. “HEALMODE” duality nicely encapsulates what’s been Rosenstock’s modus operandi since he began releasing solo music in 2012. After he released No Dream during COVID shutdowns, he couldn’t tour with his band, the excellently named Death Rosenstock, so they created ska versions of every track. The dark lyrics about migrant family separation and thoughts of self-harm disappeared into horns and dub rhythms. On HELLMODE, the existential darkness nags. It doesn’t dissipate easily.

Where POST-’s grand finale presented a fight song with a gigantic shout-along “fuck no,” HELLMODE exits on a more ambiguous note: “The longer I go,” Rosenstock sings, “The more that I know/ That I’m different than before/ And you can’t help me anymore.”

The self-doubt gets the final word. But maybe the real takeaway occurs seven songs earlier, on one of the singles, after an airy guitar line creates space for Rosenstock’s moment of zen: “You gotta chill out with the doubt!” It’s both a command and a koan. It’s going to sound amazing in a crowd of hundreds. Anthems tend to.

HELLMODE is out 9/1 on Polyvinyl.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Slowdive’s everything is alive
• Speedy Ortiz’s Rabbit Rabbit
• The Pretenders’ Relentless
• Sprain’s The Lamb As Effigy
• Taking Meds’ Dial M For Meds
• Field Medic’s light is gone 2
• P.G. Six’s Murmurs & Whispers
• Icona Pop’s Club Romantech
• The Natvral’s Summer Of No Light
• Tube Alloys’ Magnetic Point
• Lathe Of Heaven’s Bound By Naked Skies
• Primal Fear’s Code Red
• Frankie And The Witch Fingers’ Data Doom
• Mick Harvey & Amanda Acevedo’s Phantasmagoria In Blue
• Puma Blue’s Holy Waters
• Empire State Bastard’s Rivers Of Heresy
• Hey Colossus’ In Blood
• Phil Campbell And The Bastard Sons’ Kings Of The Asylum
• Ghost Of Vroom’s Ghost Of Vroom 3
• Augustus Muller’s original score for Cellulosed Bodies
• Show Me The Body’s Trouble The Water – Remixes
• Grandaddy’s Sumday Twunny
• Spirit Of The Beehive’s I’m So Lucky EP
• Perennial’s The Leaves Of Autumn Symmetry EP
• Worn’s Condensing Flesh EP

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