WRITTEN BY: NIKOLAS SLACKMAN
There’s a misconception that the term “bubblegum pop” simply refers to the sweet sound of the music and the mass marketed corporations pumping it out to mindless listeners. This may be true, but people tend to forget that the music itself also takes on characteristics of gum. These pop melodies easily stick in your head, demanding to be heard repeatedly. Your ears chew and gnaw on the lyrics until they ring, leaving a bland wet taste after listening to the music for long enough. Then, after a good number of flavorless chews, you give it up, toss it to the side, and pop in a new stick. It’s an insidious way to produce music, and in the internet age, far more prevalent than people think.
This relationship is something Jeff Rosenstock has learned to fight and work with for his entire career. Rosenstock is one of the figureheads of punk independence today, a living testament to the DIY lifestyle. He spent nearly a decade as the main creative force behind Bomb the Music Industry, a band that released music online for free during a time when artists were fighting to shut down Limewire. These artists looked down on bands that released music for free, claiming that they didn’t care about their art. It wasn’t until SideOneDummy picked up Rosenstock as a solo artist that he began to gain momentum on a national level.
Rosenstock has spoken about how his last record was made just like any of his other self released ones. SideOneDummy didn’t contact him until after the record was mastered and ready to go. “WORRY.,” however, is the fruit of a record backed by one of the most prominent independent punk labels in the nation; a weird experience for Rosenstock. So, accordingly, a number of adjustments were made to this record’s sound and message. Rosenstock has crafted an album unlike any other in his catalogue, putting a special emphasis on the political and the “poppy.”
While any middle of the road music fan might find this record to be a bit of a whiny ride, any fan who frequently listens to Rosenstock’s music will notice how toned down his self deprecation is compared to past releases. While there are traces of his days of yore, where he couldn’t help but cry out about self-loathing and fractured relationships, Rosenstock shows that he refuses to dwell in the past.
Rosenstock has decided to go big this time around, sonically and personally. This album aims for a balance between economic disarray and catharsis, finding some sort of love in between the two. Right from the start, the stage is set with “We Begged 2 Explode,” a tune fit to open up a gang-vocaled punk opera written by Billy Joel (as unappealing as that sounds, it works), lamenting the passing of time. This song is about how aging punks are destined to throw in the towel because it’s impossible to live a fun, fulfilling life when the people who run the world only care about themselves.
While this philosophy has always been on the fringes of Rosenstock’s lyrics, it becomes the center of attention on this record. “Festival Song” pierces the hypocrisy of punk bands playing festivals that are designed to sell merchandise. “Planet Luxury” channels the likes of Minor Threat and early works of Descendants, blasting into a thirty second tirade criticizing the wicked tactics authorities use to remain in power. “Wave Goodnight to Me,” while a fun Costello esque pop song on the surface, shows Rosenstock ignoring the fact that New York is slowly transforming into a place he can’t afford. Even though he wishes “it didn’t hurt,” he can’t stand that the city he loves has “spent the last five years yelling, ‘Come on! Come on! Come on! Get out of here!”
While such blatantly political lyrics are a new foray for Rosenstock, he has been finely tuning his sound for years. Yet on this album, he seems to have had something of a revelation under a record label. Rosenstock is aiming for pure catharsis on every track, ‘roiding up the gang vocals and allowing the slow songs to build in a way he’s never tried before. However, he also embraces his pop tendencies more than ever, recording bubbly love songs like “I Did Something Weird Last Night…,” which he never would have dared to include on his earlier records.
“WORRY.” is so overwhelmingly full of hooks and noise that the result is a polished and meticulous album that feels like organized chaos. The album ranges from jumpy abrasive love songs like “Pash Rash,” to mournful, late Beach Boys styled ballads like “Staring out the Window at Your Old Apartment.”. In “Blast Damage Day’s,” he mixes daydreamy 90’s alt with a blasting chorus over the course of the song. This is even more prominent in the second half of the album, which features a long suite of one to two minute songs that go by so quickly, it can feel jarring. It doesn’t always work, with tracks like “HELLLLHOOOOLE” and “June 21st” feeling somewhat half-baked, struggling to move the album along quite the way Rosenstock had probably hoped. But during songs as emotionally charged as “The Fuzz” and “…While You’re Alive,” when Rosenstock bellows out that “love is worry,” there’s a nerve-pulsing understanding of the world as he sees it.
We live in complicated times, where plenty of music sounds like some sort of bubblegum pop. Everything is disposable, everyone is trying to sell you something you don’t need, and even the internet is, as Rosenstock sings, “a data mine for targeted marketing, and no one will listen up until you become a hashtag or a meme.” It’s a society that’s not afraid to devalue human existence. Jeff Rosenstock’s “WORRY.,” while not a perfect album, is the first I’ve heard this year that recognizes this in a way that doesn’t feel trendy, misguided or false. It succeeds at fighting a flavorless culture by using bubblegum music against it, resulting a deeply personal record that focuses on the big picture. It’s an album that wants you to have fun and forget your problems, reminding you that when you stop worrying, you stop caring.