Just say that band name out loud to yourself: “The world is a beautiful place & I am no longer afraid to die.” Joke or not, the name sort of hits on everything about the Connecticut collective: they’re sprawling, they’re a bit too much, there’s more than a little post-rock in them, and they challenge you to meet them in their too muchness; that ampersand in the middle highlights how long and dramatic the name is, and it almost dares you to stop there, but fuck it, I am no longer afraid to die. The statement reads as a realization, and with it, the band’s music has always treated the sky like it’s a limit they’re trying to reach. But Always Foreign has to contend with what happens when the world might not be a beautiful place–what happens when it feels goddamn terrifying?
Such concerns weren’t problems on 2013’s When, If Ever and Harmlessness, its successor released in 2015. Harmlessness, a fantastic synthesis of post-rock musical cinema and emo revival personal catharsis, spent most of its time advocating for mental health and support systems, and saw the world as having problems, yes, but ultimately believed it was good. “I am alive, I deserve to be” goes a lyric from “Rage Against the Dying of the Light,” and while it’s sort of a chicken-and-egg situation, TWIABP’s optimism meshes well with the emo revival scene they’ve influenced; in the same year that Harmlessness was released, Joy, Departed by fellow revivalists Sorority Noise culminated in a key-changing, crowd surging shout of “I STOPPED WISHING I WAS DEAD.” In context, that line is in perfect sync with TWIABP’s outlook–that after everything else has gone wrong (Joy, Departed is in broad strokes about mental illness and substance abuse), life itself is still desirable. Harmlessness believed that, even if things were wrong, the world had a way of righting itself or of being made right by the inherent goodness of others.
But Always Foreign is not Harmlessness, and you can see the differences as early as their first singles. Harmlessness‘ first single was “January 10th, 2014,” a 7 minute long epic with musical peaks and valleys, and its lyrics celebrated a story of feminist vigilantism that ended with the resolution to “Make evil afraid of evil’s shadow.” Meanwhile, Always Foreign‘s lead single “Dillon and Her Son” has instrumentation that matches “January 10th” for intricacy, but condensed to an impossibly tight run time. “Dillon…” forgoes extended musical breaks for a punky rhythm section, knotty guitars, and SNES-y synths that have a build-up and final payoff, all inside two and a half minutes. You can pick out differences in the worldviews of “January…” and “Dillon…” as well from the lyrics: the former is a celebration of world-righting justice, while the latter–which implores “Give my life back if you believe us”–expresses wonder at a slight reprieve from the world’s instability.
Even though it doesn’t appear until the album’s middle, “Dillion and Her Son” is a great opening shot for Always Foreign, because it shows how the band’s entire orientation has changed. At a glance, yeah, the songs are generally shorter, but more than that, they’re streamlined. The music still reaches for those widescreen highs, be it on perfect pop song “The Future” or Always Foreign’s lone seven minute sprawler “Marine Tigers,” but the band’s swapped out dramatic pauses for constant forward motion. Even though it seems counterintuitive, paring down actually lets the songs breathe more since they’re stripped down to the (again, still very intricate) essentials; something like “Faker” or “Infinite Steve” would risk ending up jumbled on a previous release, whereas they make for breathtaking two parters now.
Consequentially, this is TWIABP’s song-iest record. It’s still meant to be listened to in order from end to end (especially the closing trifecta of “Marine Tigers,” “Fuzz Minor,” and “Infinite Steve”), but the album’s individual parts each have a distinct identity. If you want to appreciate “The Future” as a focusing point for the album after opener “I’ll Make Everything,” that’s an option, or if you love it as a standalone The Wonder Years meets Funeral pop-punker, you can totally do that, too. “Fuzz Minor” succeeds as the middle piece in the album’s closing thesis statement, and as a hellish rebuke to the current Presidential administration equally; the sheer vitriol that singer David Bello, who is of Lebanese and Puerto Rican descent, packs into the word “spic” has to be heard to be believed. Each song is full arresting moments like that. I could go on about the music, but instead, I’ll just quote music writer Ian Cohen who said of Harmlessness, “There are at least 50 moments on this thing where I imagine yelling at a non-convert, ‘how can you think THIS IS JUST OK?'” thus predicting my reaction to “Infinite Steve” 2 years early.
I mention “Infinite Steve” because it’s the record’s closing attempt to reconcile living in a terrifying world and who you can and can’t take with you. The first half of the song is a roiling account of modern life that lashes and wails in anguish until it gives way to an impressionist story of either a communication breakdown between friends or a mass shooting set to the prettiest damn music this band’s ever made, and the contrast between the two is evocative. Always Foreign finds the world awful for lots of reasons, but, like a healthy percentage of indie/punk records this year, a big league reason is the Trump administration, who gets put on full blast directly in “Fuzz Minor,” whose supporters are questioned during “Faker,” and whose influence permeates the immigration tale of “Marine Tigers.” But, for as much political heat is on this record, TWIABP also knows that those who were closest to us are the ones who can cause the most damage; angry as “Fuzz Minor” is, it doesn’t swing nearly as hard as “Hilltopper,” a song aimed toward a former band member, does. “Gram” examines small town drug trades, while “For Robin” details watching someone’s alcoholism and substance abuse cause them to fall further and further away before dying, and together, the two songs funnel substance problems from an institutional issue to something that’s wrought devastation on so many individuals. That’s the scope of this record.
Always Foreign is the first The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die record that doesn’t take the first half of their name for granted. While the band’s outlook wasn’t pure rose-colored glass (“We Need More Skulls” comes to mind), this album is the first time that the world’s innate goodness has been interrogated. And still, I think Always Foreign ultimately believes the world is worth it. Among lyrics like “I hope evil can see this,“ “Will you be faking it when they’re rounding us up?” and “Four cars jammed inside every garage” are ones that say “Just hold on until the phantom’s gone,” “There are places we’re gone that our friends never will,” and the harrowed “Marine Tigers” ends with “We’re here/I told you so.” The world might not be harmless. But it isn’t helpless.