I didn’t get it.
The explosive synths, rapid tempo changes, and experimentalism were too much. Back then I also didn’t get screamed vocals, so the notion that music was something that could be dismantled and reformed was still far beyond me. It took years for Bomb the Music Industry! to grow on me, but when it did, it was as if it was just another necessary organ in my own undulating sack of flesh. Jeff Rosenstock became my musical messiah, teaching me that music can be resonant and emotional while never losing its progressive edge. Suddenly I found myself as someone who loved music, not just punk.
Which feels weird for me to say, because in my mind, there is no one more punk. Rosenstock is a reminder that punk ideals didn’t die with Fugazi and that to be a Fugazi, you don’t have to be cold and dogmatic. Bubbling through the frenzied instrumentation and unabashedly pop melodies there was a sense of fun. Songs about drinking and being a sadsack twenty-something could lead to a poignant statement about DIY.
We Cool? is like Vacation in a lot of ways, and could perhaps be seen as a continuation. The influences are different, or perhaps a little more dialed in this time around– less an affectation, more organic. Its pop music viewed from a wonky punk lens that distorts and broadens its scope. There’s still synth and tremolo guitar solos, but the focus is on the fundamental building blocks: the songs.
The thematics of We Cool? can be summed up in the first line of “Get Old Forever”: “When your friends are buying starter homes with their accomplishments, drinking at a house show can feel childish and embarrassing.” The album balloons with a sense of quarter-life angst, where friends grow and change and life becomes about more than just hanging out. Rosenstock battles this with his music, like an aged road warrior who knows only one thing, and knows it to be his salvation. Music brings strength and closes distances on “You, In Weird Cities.” The song opens as a bass heavy punk song with earworm melodies, before transforming into a massive singalong with the refrain of “when I listen to your records, its like I’m hanging out with you.” When the moment comes, it feels cathartic and triumphant, a reminder that art can shape and bend perspective.
Rosenstock merges his themes with slice of life imagery to keep them relevant and resonant. The details of “Nausea,” a piano-jam reminiscent of something off Scrambles, make the chorus of “I got so tired of discussing my future, I’ve started avoiding the ones that I love,” feel soaked in anxiety and desperation. It gets more heart wrenching with “I’m Serious, I’m Sorry,” which guts the listener with visceral imagery of grief and how traumas shape our lives. In the context of We Cool?, it shows how adulthood comes to us whether we want it to or not. No matter what walls we put up, skinny jeans or hoodies, it spreads to our nearest and dearest.
It all culminates with “Darkness Records.” On it, Rosenstock sings: “Burn my Mona Lisa, I’d like another chance. To put stars in her eyes, fire pipes in the sky, and brass knuckles on her hands.” Its a beautiful opening that begins a tread through what the disjointed pair art and reality make of us. When the screeching melody kicks in from “You, In Weird Cities” it says all that needs to be said about why we listen and why we create. I’d like to believe the final line is a winking allusion to that, where a drug addicted child can “breathe through the cheeks of the tauntaun.”
A reminder that when you’re being choked by change and suffocated with self, a song can be as good as a tracheotomy.