Most albums are centered around Something That Happened. Be it a break-up, a marriage, moving cities, or touring, it is perfectly normal for an artist to head into the studio, and put what’s been weighing on them most to music. The idea, especially for albums surrounding upheaval (break-ups, deaths, etc.), is that you use this record as a way lay bare the Thing That Happened, process it, and boom–by the end have all the resolution of Vivien Leigh declaring “After all, tomorrow is another day” as the music swells. You then lay this out night after night in front of adoring strangers for a while, take some time off, and two to four years later, crack out another one free of whatever was troubling you last time.
I get this approach, but I find it also kind of bullshit because it denies human complexity. Upheaval isn’t just something that happens, is immediately processed, and then you’re fine. No one works like that, and you’d be foolish to suggest otherwise to someone’s face. Recovering is its own full step that takes time and includes its own non-linear emotional arc. It requires truly reflecting on and understanding where you want to go and what comes next. Two punk (ish) artists have explored this idea of What Comes Next recently: Worcester, MA’s up and comers The Hotelier and Florida’s Against Me!
The Hotelier first made waves in 2014 with their sophomore album Home, Like Noplace Is There. HLNIT is a concise, smartly written album of cathartic punk rock, but it’s also a double-barreled blast to the chest of interpersonal and emotional crisis. There’s the rollicking tune about taking someone home after they OD. The hooky single about a friend’s suicide. The mid-album ballad on abuse. The screamo burner about gender dysphoria. All these songs rock, but the album’s intensity isn’t something that can be replicated or repeated without diminishing returns because no one’s meant to go through that much sustained anguish. “You have to find a way out” as Hotelier frontperson/principle member Christian Holden has said in a recent profile.
Released in May as Home‘s follow-up, Goodness focuses almost exclusively on recovery following personal trauma. Recovery, as shown on Goodness, is removed and therapeutic; the names of the album’s interludes and spoken word intro refer to forested areas of New England that mean something reflective to Holden, including the Not Back to School Camp where they’re a camp counselor each summer. You hear this naturalistic isolation all over the album’s music, too: Home had a coarse production and sounded as raw as its subject matter, while Goodness includes cleaner, crisper production; and often with the guitar’s distortion pedal traded in for clean, Peter Buck-ian tones (really, the whole LP has that early-R.E.M. warmth to it). The songs on Home sounded like something you went crashing into because of the emotional overcharge; the autumnal light sound of Goodness is meant to envelope instead of overwhelm.
The songs on Goodness are enveloping as a byproduct of their sprawling nature. They’re a little slower, a little longer on average, and less pop-punk but no less effective here than on Home. “Goodness Pt. 2” is a thrilling opener with an earned full band drop after 2 minutes of building tension with Holden singing an elongated melody over crisp drums and softly dissonant guitars. Meanwhile, “Piano Player” doesn’t feel five minutes long thanks to a brisk tempo, dynamic instrumental work, and the band knowing exactly when to hit the throttle and when to ease back. And then you get “Two Deliverances,” which kicks off with the album’s prettiest guitar riff and only improves from there. Holden has that pop-punk nasally croon, but they wring more emotion out of it than on previous releases, including some falsetto to really send the yearning on “Two Deliverances” home.
Goodness‘ two songs north of 6 minutes are both are great, especially for an act who normally wrap things up in 3 or 4. “Sun” is structured around a busy, looping riff for its first half, and then fades into a jam (all those years playing live together are paying off) that leads into quiet to chants of “Sun” before exploding into a final, raspy refrain. It’s less orderly than the band’s previous long songs, but the risk and build-up pay off. Meanwhile, closer “End of Reel” is a Hotelier anthem in the vein of “An Introduction to the Album” and “Dendron” to its core, that starts small and builds and builds until the exact moment it doesn’t.
Another aspect of Goodness and how it believes in healing is how it wants to heal and exist on its own terms. It’s not a difficult album in the vein of, say, Blonde where it subverts expectations, but in it how it makes some plain damn weird (but completely logical) artistic choices. It’s an album that’s not afraid to be itself, in other words. On one hand, you’ve got stuff that scans as self-indulgent–like the spoken word introduction and acoustic, sound collage-y interludes–which maybe insist upon themselves, but make sense as searching for inner peace. And then, you’ve got the material that makes you feel blisteringly self-conscious about championing this record, like the high-lariously NSFW cover art, and how extroverted “Soft Animal” is about its plea for–well–goodness. There aren’t half-measures on something like the overearnest gloriousness of a chorus going “MAKE ME FEEL ALIVE/MAKE ME BELIEVE THAT ALL MY SELVES ALIGN.” Goodness is like that with its other choices; either you entertain the argument that AARPsters going full-frontal is beautiful, or you just closed out a tab as fast as possible.
But I get it. I get why Goodness is so committed to its aspirations. The common complaint is that the album isn’t as immediate or dark/cathartic as its predecessor; that The Hotelier have lost something intimate by going light instead. I see this complaint, but it’s not accurate. I say that Goodness is so committed to its aspiration toward goodness and recovery because that hope is all it has left, and it knows that without that hope, it would die. That, to me, is darker than Home. And this is supported entirely by the record itself: those studio glitches that creep up during otherwise peaceful moments (“You in This Light” skipping at its end, the bursts of noise in “Settle the Scar,” and the background hiss on “Goodness, Pt. 2”) sound like a past anguish trying to claw to the surface. The chorus on “Piano Player” offers the most compelling and harrowing version of this: for the first one and a half iterations, Holden sings the word “Sustain” like a calming, controlled mantra. On the second time around, they pivot from that peaceful, clear tone to a full-throated scream barely contained in background, and you can hear their voice either on the edge of breaking through to the front or breaking down completely into despair. In that white-knuckled moment, “Sustain” isn’t an ideal, it is optimism or death.
Even after 47 minutes, Goodness knows that the search for happiness and the process of recovery may never be over. The album closes with perhaps its most musically straight ahead song, “End of Reel.” The formal power balladry of the song ends four-fifths of the way through for one last rising rock band jam. Over about a minute, the guitars lock into place, the bass weaves between them, the cymbal crashes mount, and as the whole thing damn near actualizes into an Arcade Fire-sized wave of catharsis, everything dies out, except random snare hits. As soon as you’re aware of your own happiness, it disappears, and you can’t catch it right back. But, you can look for it, and that’s all Goodness wants.
“What comes next?” is an immediate concern for Florida punks Against Me! and their new album Shape Shift With Me. 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, written while frontwoman Laura Jane Grace came out as trans and transitioned to life as a woman, was a watershed moment for the band that revitalized their career. It was also my favorite album of 2014. But it left almost too neat a bow on Grace and her band’s narrative: she was out, proud, and unilaterally supported while her band made the best record of its career. Hell, Transgender Dysphoria Blues even ended its fraught and traumatized run time with Grace at her most resolutely defiant on “Black Me Out;” things couldn’t have ended neater.
But, while Grace’s public and professional lives aligned, she was fighting to keep herself together. As detailed in a recent Rolling Stone profile, Grace’s transition effectively blew up her personal life by putting a significant strain on her relationship with her father, on her mental state, and eventually ruining her marriage. The upheaval for Grace isn’t over, and may never be.
Shape Shift With Me handles what comes next by refusing to take any of its shit, which keeps with Against Me!’s general M.O. For however frayed Grace’s personal life is, at least she can take solace that her band’s never sounded better: The Offspring veteran Atom Willard returns on drums, longtime member James Bowman handles guitar leads, and hyperactive bassist Inge Johansson joined following the Transgender Dysphoria Blues tour. The chemistry on last year’s live record is present here; from brawny shout-along opener “Provision L-3″to the free-wheeling punk rock makeout sesh “Rebecca” to “Boyfriend”‘s heavy stomp, Shape Shift With Me has some of Against Me!’s most muscular but surprisingly catchy and fun music.
That’s the other thing about Shape Shift With Me–it’s the first Against Me! record that could be described as fun. Part of the reason why is this band’s blend of folk, punk, and Springsteen-ian stadium rock has always had some bounce and melody to it, but SSWM is the first album where they lean into their pop-rock tendencies. The single biggest factor in the album’s brightness is the production, though; not only are the guitars big, the drums punchy, and Grace’s vocals pushed to the front, they’re polished without being overproduced (see: Crosses, White). That sheen is what makes “Crash,” whose central riff threatens to burst into “Just What I Needed” so damn enjoyable, and what closing track “All This (And More)” bittersweet, since Grace has room to sound dejected without being buried by the music. Sonically, this is the new wave record that every band who toured Warped between ’04 and ’08 eventually does.
Shape Shift With Me‘s musical brightness matches its lyrical determination to have shit work, but it’s not as lighthearted and carefree as it wants to be. For one thing, lighthearted albums don’t have kickass songs like “Delicate, Petite, & Other Things I’ll Never Be,” where gender dysphoria is set to a punk rockified take on “Billie Jean,” or Flogging Molly-esque fuck-offs like “Haunting Haunted Haunts.” But even the album’s “just wanna have fun” moments come with desperation: “Rebecca” isn’t so caught up in its own hot blood that it doesn’t implore its subject “Let’s not fall in love,” lest anything hurtful happen, and the positivity of “12:03” is tempered with the anxiety of hearing back from someone and getting things to go right. And, as “All This (And More)” admits with its closing line, everything over the last 36 minutes has been to forget you.
I guess you could argue that Shape Shift With Me is a break-up record, but that seems too narrow. More broadly–and accurately–it describes the fallout and next steps in Grace’s life following her transition. There’s no longer one big change (i.e. “My name is Laura Jane Grace”), but a bunch of smaller changes, y’know, shifts in her current life. Whereas Goodness centers on internal healing from previous trauma, Shape Shift With Me believes its core self will be enough if the world would accept it. But both truly, firmly believe that good things will not only come, but they have to. You just have to survive first.