Despite not personally being put off by the inclusion of political sentiments in music, I can nevertheless understand why others may prefer to keep their music and their politics separate. Politics in music, like any other common lyrical topic, is stamped with its own clichés and buzzwords that can quickly grow tiresome when continually presented in the most mundane of manners and, as someone who tries to listen to as much music as possible, I am painfully aware of the banalities that run rampant through certain genres, particularly punk music’s vociferous political side. One could likely compile a bingo card of platitudes commonly regurgitated by liberal and left-leaning punk bands, ranging from insubstantial references to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, to referring to America as being spelt with three Ks, to no end of instances of blatant virtue signalling. In the case of this last issue, this sort of moral posturing and complete lack of self-awareness that is common amongst certain punk bands lead to such acts alienating the listener, often regardless of whether or not one agrees with what they are saying, purely as a result of the way in which these ideas are presented without the aid of any sort of self-reflection or poise. Of course, it’s to be expected that the attacks on certain political beliefs or groups are going to be delivered with speed and aggression in the world of punk music, with politically-charged punk songs arguably being more of an expression of anger for the emotional benefit of the artist than a constructive and well-rounded argument intended to sway their opponents, but an apparent lack of originality and self-awareness throughout much of modern punk music could be said to be stagnating the genre slightly.
Thankfully, however, there still exist punk artists such as IDLES and Sleaford Mods, who are working their way up the ladder of exposure in the music world, whilst still finding creative and droll ways to express many of punk’s typical political sentiments, as well as some of their own observations. There is one artist, however, who hasn’t simply established his own style of delivery and narrative voice to communicate political attitudes that are common to punk, but who also bypasses the problems with the way in which other punk acts present their points of view by considering himself and his audience as part of the bigger political picture; this artist being singer, songwriter and former frontman of The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry!, Jeff Rosenstock. Prior to the comprehensive political statement that came with his previous solo record, WORRY., Rosenstock’s lyrics were noted for the musician’s unfiltered self-deprecation, which often straddles the line between being comical and depressing, on his first two solo albums, I Look Like Shit and We Cool?, and the reason WORRY. hit home as such a heavy and heartfelt political record was because Rosenstock’s readiness to admit to his own shortcomings and anxieties translated to a refreshingly self-aware punk album with a sharp political edge. Despite tackling topics that have always been under the microscope of American punk music, such as police brutality, gentrification and economic and racial inequality, Rosenstock’s willingness to insert himself into these political landscapes, and the ability with which he does this, not only grounds his diatribes in an authentically self-aware and human presentation, but has allowed the singer to become almost entirely attuned with his audience. Rather than pushing listeners away with holier-than-thou harangues, Rosenstock’s image as an anxious, self-conscious, confused millennial in the midst of an increasingly chaotic and schismatic political climate is sure to be painfully relatable to many of the members of his core demographic, making for an album of earnest and ardent punk anthems that truly deserve to be belted out by a huddle of sweaty 20-somethings in a cramped music venue. In short, WORRY. works because it is so self-effacing and, as a clear spiritual successor to this record, Jeff Rosenstock’s newest record, POST-, is successful for similar reasons.
With WORRY. being released only a few weeks before the 2016 United States presidential election, it’s safe to say that much of the anxiety that fuelled Rosenstock’s fervour across the album was, at least in part, brought on by the impending prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. As such, for the artist to have remained largely silent throughout 2017, with the exception of lending his production skills to The Smith Street Band on their latest album, was surprising, as many fans were expecting a follow-up to WORRY. that reflected on that record’s themes, but from the perspective brought by a Trump presidency and the yet further increased rifts in American politics. However, with his latest album dropping out of the blue on New Year’s Day, it seems that Rosenstock spent 2017 preparing the carefully calculated sequel to WORRY., with both the title and stylisation of POST- suggesting it to be a true-blue continuation of its predecessor that draws emotional influence from the apprehensions and uncertainties that arose during the post-election period. On a lyrical basis, therefore, POST- is most definitely on par with WORRY., but if one thing pushes Rosenstock’s artistry on his new effort past the already high standards of his previous record, that would have to be the music. This is particularly true with regards to how well tailored the music across POST- is to its themes, with the political and emotional turbulence present in the record’s inspiration and lyricism being reflected in some of the most tortuous compositions of Rosenstock’s career. As such, POST- isn’t simply a reiteration of the lyrical and musical themes of WORRY., rather it offers an entirely different perspective on them, making for an album that is strong for many of the same reasons as its precursor, with the added bonus of displaying Rosenstock’s growth beyond this point.
As was the case with WORRY., therefore, the most potent lyrical moments across POST- come when Rosenstock relates his previous lyrical topics of self-doubt, anxiety, despondency, disorientation and boredom to the current state of US politics, considering how the confusion of the country as a whole negatively affects the confidence of the younger generations who are being thrust into the adult world whilst it’s undergoing drastic and divisive changes. The first full-length song on the album, USA, for instance, couples the feeling of ennui that has recurred throughout Rosenstock’s material with the post-election depression that hit many young Americans, with the initial feeling of being “dumbfounded, downtrodden and dejected” having now given way to sheer exhaustion and boredom, as they simply wait for the political storm to eventually blow over. More powerful, however, is the double entendre that repeats across much of Yr Throat, with Rosenstock’s question of, “What’s the point of having a voice / When it gets stuck inside your throat?” being both directed at himself — for his ability to prattle on about all the inconsequential thoughts that bounce around his head, despite struggling to articulate his anxiety — and at those who hold back from speaking out against Trump. Case in point, Rosenstock finds himself baffled not simply by the slew of repulsive information to have been dug up on Trump, specifically citing the leaked Access Hollywood tape, but more importantly, the fact that it doesn’t seem as if anyone is willing to hold him accountable for these remarks. If anything, it seemed as if each new unsavoury comment from Trump only saw his popularity snowball, with the singer noting how, unlike any other job he knows, being “a piece of shit” seemingly works in favour of prospective American presidents. Meanwhile, the punchy Beating My Head Against A Wall candidly captures the tedium and frustration that comes with attempting to put forward your point of view to someone who refuses to even hear any opinions that differ from their own, with Rosenstock’s constant repetition of the word “beat” mimicking both the act of hammering one’s head against a hard surface and the infuriating monotony that comes with trying to reason with someone who runs around in logical circles. Although blunt, Beating My Head Against A Wall potently plays into the fundamental purpose of POST-, that being to convey the way in which politics, particularly the discordant state it is currently in, affects both Rosenstock and his audience on an emotional level, with the uncertainties of the modern day only adding to the anxieties and doubts with which young adults are already faced.
Just as Rosenstock inserts himself into his political reflections on POST-, the musician really throws himself into these songs as a performer, with his impassioned delivery not simply proving him to be a charismatic frontman, but also playing into the entire emotional purpose of the album. Rosenstock’s usual, pained, melodic yelps can be found all over POST-, with the singer making an explosive entry in the opening moments of USA as he wails about his feelings of bewilderment and dispiritedness, but falls back into his soft, lackadaisical moans as he repeats the song’s “tired and bored” mantra. The instrumentation follows suit, flying out of the gate with as much reckless abandon as Rosenstock’s vocals, as diminished guitar chords and wailing leads play against a tight, punctuated groove from the bass and drums, whilst the “tired and bored” bridge section devolves into a sleepy jam, with some warm, gently buzzing keyboard arpeggios playing against a twinkling counter-melody and the soft hum of the guitars. With some tense, indie rock crescendoes and anthemic climaxes worked around these two extremes, USA makes good use of its seven-and-a-half-minute runtime and amounts to one of Rosenstock’s most dynamic and tortuous tracks to date. Balancing out the more sinuous USA, however, are the more upfront, hook-heavy tracks that are successful for many of the same reasons as any number of singles to have come out of Jeff Rosenstock’s solo catalogue. The galloping groove during the first verse of Yr Throat is broken apart during the brief build-ups and punchy accents of the melody-driven chorus, whilst the bridge can be pinned down by the usual chanting vocals and chorus of handclaps that so often contribute to Rosenstock’s sizeable, singalong punk numbers. Despite squeezing a typical, strophic songwriting formula into just under three minutes, Yr Throat shakes things up just enough between each verse and chorus to keep the infectious hook and rollicking rhythms demanding that the listener revisit this song. Although not quite as direct, even the more meditative cuts in the tracklisting are clearly defined in their bearing and purpose. The swaying, laid-back groove of 9/10 and its fizzling keyboard chords lend themselves well to the added textures brought by the clicky guitar chords that bounce off one another and the melodic descents of the sparkly, chiming keys, all of which comprise a wispy, glittering haze that mimics Rosenstock’s musings of being stoned on the subway. The bright guitar tones, steady piano chords and soaring vocal harmonies of the ballad-like TV Stars are used to a similar effect at the beginning of the song, with the added role of building to the roaring bridge section, which itself finds resolve in the melodic switch-up of the final chorus that reflects the artist’s bitter conclusion in his realisation that celebrities, whom he feels the need to turn to for guidance, are detached from the real-life responsibilities with which he needs help. Ultimately, the music and timbre of POST- feels very much married to Rosenstock’s lyricism and the emotional direction of each song, to the point that even the five-minute, ambient outro of Let Them Win that closes the entire record feels purposeful, in that it offers a calm conclusion to all the confusion and angst that instigated the album’s conception.
Picking up where WORRY. left off, POST-, in its immediacy and energy, offers a sort of snapshot of the post-election sentiments of many young Americans, whilst nevertheless standing as a statement that is not likely to wane as it ages, thanks to the applicability of Rosenstock’s observations, which will surely remain pertinent to the relationship between the younger generations and political conduct for quite some time, or at least until America heals its ruptures. Musically, the artist’s amalgamation of punk, indie rock, ska and power pop is just as definitive and dynamic as ever, and is perhaps even more diversified on POST-, courtesy of some more varied compositional chops and a great attention to detail when it comes to relating the tone of each song to its subject matter, with the many conflicting feelings that comprise Rosenstock’s scattered thoughts throughout the tracklisting being reflected by each twist and turn in the album’s timbre and songwriting. The slightly less streamlined nature of this album compared to WORRY. gives that much more room for Rosenstock’s ideas to breathe, and given that the musician’s greatest strength currently is just how closely conditioned he is to the emotional experiences of his core audience, POST- ranks amongst the most powerful and resonant records of Jeff Rosenstock’s discography.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10