It’s no secret that this reviewer is a fan of Jeff Rosenstock, as his creative endeavors are the subject of the majority of the posts that I have written for this website (I’m not going to dignify claims of my obsession by doing the math, and neither should you). While I don’t necessarily stoop so low as to write blandly about his day-to-day activities or make everyone I know uncomfortable by experimenting with oddly specific fan fiction (no promises on both counts irt future posts), I do my best to keep up with notable Jeff stories. And in a year that Jeff has described as the busiest he has been since the start of Bomb The Music Industry, there has certainly been a wealth of things to write about.
All these stories have culminated in the release of We Cool?, the first album of all-original material since BtMI’s Vacation in 2011. The album, released on Side One Dummy Records, sees Jeff maturing his sound while maintaining his signature style. Recorded in California with Jack Shirley (who has previously worked with Laura Stevenson and The Cans and Deafheaven), the album shows the influence Jeff must have received touring and recording as Antarctigo Vespucci and going to Australia to record the new Smith Street Band LP. As a result, We Cool? puts the pop-punk pedal to the metal and continues the reduction of the “group effort” tone in recordings following the retirement of the Bomb the Music Industry moniker last year.
At its core, however, this is still very clearly a Jeff Rosenstock record, and one of We Cool?‘s chief strengths is it’s accessibility compared to the rest of Jeff’s overall discography. Multiple extraneous circumstances caused a good amount of Arrogant Sons of Bitches (Three Cheers for Disappointment notwithstanding) and Bomb the Music Industry albums to have a very rough sound that would easily cause a Jeff newcomer to not give the material a chance even after a short time through any one track. However, as Jeff’s career progressed the quality of sound greatly improved, giving the songwriting a chance to shine. This can be seen almost immediately, in the album’s fantastic opener “Get Old Forever”. BtMI’s beginnings as a bedroom-production project enabled Jeff to experiment pretty freely with electronics, creating a lot of chiptune-inspired sounds that were so synthetic that they often clashed with the natural sounds of the song’s natural elements (for instance, select sections of Scrambles‘ “25!!!” and “I’m Too Coooooool For Music” off Album Minus Band). In contrast, the programmed bleeps and bloops that enter midway into “Get Old”‘s first verse succeed at building the song up while blending nicely with the rest of the instrumentation.
Of course, this newfound accessibility is not a harbinger of any lack of kickass moments. Songs like early single “Hey Allison!” and the Weezer-influenced “Novelty Sweater” bring a frenetic energy that compliments the seemingly endless amount of hooks on this thing. There are also a handful of moments sprinkled throughout this record that callback to Jeff’s noisier days, like the brief, grating bits of guitar feedback in the pre-choruses of penultimate track “The Lows” or the wall of sound at the climax of album closer “Darkness Records”. The fact that almost any of these songs (one notable exception being the slow-burner “All Blissed Out”) could serve as a single shows the amount of both skill and dedication put into this project.
As with any Jeff release, lyrical content continues to be a highlight, combining words and phrases usually accompanied by a cold sweat and the onset of a personality disorder with upbeat, hook-infested music. The majority of the lyrics on this record involve some sort of existential fear, which is a subject Jeff has been exploring in depth since the last few BtMI albums (as told in a recent Reddit AMA). This theme is brought out most in “I’m Serious, I’m Sorry” and “Polar Bear or Africa”, the two emotional centerpieces of the record. “Serious” appears to be quite similar to “Fresh Attitude, Young Body” off Bomb The Music Industry’s 2009 record Scrambles, as both songs feature lyrics about coping with the death of yourself or a loved one. However, as “Attitude” paradoxically matches a triumphant tone with it’s subject matter, “Serious” sets it’s lyrics to a minor key anthem that accentuates the meaningfulness of what is being said lyrically. The latter, with a chorus that worries that “I’m gonna die / and you’re going to forget my name”, presents a sobering example of the album’s overall theme of the fear of getting older and irrelevant.
This record, possibly more so than any before it, shows the influence of Brian Wilson on Jeff’s songwriting/production style. Though you could piece together this connection early in his career (the most literal example being the title of “Brian Wilson Says SMiLE A.K.A. Beard of Defiance” off BtMI’s 2005 EP To Leave or Die in Long Island), as Jeff’s recordings became gradually less lo-fi the influence of the Beach Boys songwriter became more noticeable. Perhaps the biggest (and for me the most welcome) example of this are the lush backing vocal harmonies featured on a lot of the tracks of this album. Heavily featuring ex-BtMI member Laura Stevenson, the harmonies add a lot of flavor to the songs, and combined with Jeff’s knack for catchy melodies and unusual song structures they give this album an abundance of pretty and interesting moments fit for an understudy of Brian Wilson himself. If you don’t believe me, check out the bridge section of “Polar Bear or Africa”, where contrapuntal vocal parts layer over each other and build to create the record’s most overtly baroque pop moment.
With these things in mind, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that We Cool? is Jeff’s most fully realized album post-Arrogant Sons of Bitches. A pretty easy comparison to demonstrate the growth shown in this record is to compare its differences with I Look Like Shit and the Summer EP to the differences between BtMI’s standout record Get Warmer with the two (and a half) records that came before it. Both this record and Get Warmer seem to be a sort of turning point in each band’s discography, featuring a wider array of sounds that fit together as a unit better than anything that has come before it. Both records show an accessibility that is not “selling out” but instead Jeff honing in to what could be the best representation of each respective project. I for one am excited to see what Jeff’s next moves will be.
Supporting our claims that Jeff is a giving and bountiful omnipotent being, this record as well as all other associated projects are available for download at Quote Unquote Records (donations are accepted), while physical copies of the record can be purchased via Side One Dummy. Jeff can be seen next at The Royale on March 21st for the Boston stop of his tour with Andrew Jackson Jihad (tickets are still available here).
BIG TUNES: “You, In Weird Cities”, “I’m Serious, I’m Sorry”, “Get Old Forever”, Fuck It, Everything Else Too