Album Spotlight: Jeff Rosenstock - "NO DREAM"
>>Jeff Rosenstock and company have had a whirlwind past few years. Since the release of punk fan favorite We Cool? in 2015, Jeff Rosenstock and the Death Rosenstock crew (bassist John Dedomenici, drummer Kevin Heguchi, guitarist Mike Huguenor, and key player Dan Potthast) have been on nearly non-stop tours through three albums cycles, including critical mega-hit WORRY. in 2016, and the surprise New Years day release of POST- in 2018. Since that last release, Rosenstock and co. have been on hiatus. That is, until NO DREAM released with absolutely no warning on Wednesday morning. NO DREAM, which was written throughout the summer of 2019 and was recorded and produced up until the very beginning of this past March, not only feels like a brilliant conclusion to the themes of Rosenstocks’ musical trajectory of the past few years, but also an astoundingly poignant album in the current climate of a COVID-19 encumbered world.
It’s hard to talk about NO DREAM without first touching on Rosenstocks’ past efforts. We Cool? focused on feelings of personal inferiority, of feeling like you’re just on the cusp of being stuck in your life, not knowing the path you’re meant to take, and that everyone around you is outrunning you. WORRY. keyed in on that existential anxiety, but coupled it with a growing fear of the negative impact of capitalist society, American politics’ and its’ impact on the independent punk scene. 2018’s POST- is a blow out soundscape of political anti-establishment anthems, with soaring instrumental builds that crescendo and decrescendo in a sort of pop-punk anti-capitalist symphony orchestra. NO DREAM is a perfect blend of all of these themes, taking the things that didn’t work as well with the previous efforts out and only retaining the airtight elements.
What we’re left with is a raucous, articulate, dense, pulsing collection of what can only really be described as power pop punk anthems. Rosenstock has always experimented instrumentally, utilizing all kinds of different sounds in his arsenal, and NO DREAM is no exception, with each sound sitting in strong, stable harmony in Jack Shirley’s gleaming, steadfast mix. The balance of the production is near perfect, allowing everything to shine in the exact right way, while still letting the grit nestle the listener’s eardrums. Every piece is right there for you, but nothing outshines anything else, allowing the emotion of the catchy, encompassing guitar leads, the shiny, glittery keys, and the thunderous, unnerving drumming to stir inside you. The performances’ on this album are stellar, with Jeff’s yelpy, sincere, steadfast vocals leading the way as the instruments crash together to paint a perfect picture of a dishonest, yet unyieldingly truthful and brutal capitalist society, on the brink of its own implosive collapse. Jeff also allows his roots to unearth in different places, with ska inspiration peppered into the mixes of different tracks, spirited punk rock breakdowns here and there, and the sugary, indie-pop background vocals of longtime friends and collaborators Laura Stevenson and Chris Farren complimenting Rosenstock’s shockingly truthful delivery. Through the use of these elements, we see Rosenstock calling back to the different eras of his near twenty-two year long career, while utilizing them in a way that recontextualizes their presence for his current musical moment.
But among the sheer musical triumph that NO DREAM is to listen to, Rosenstock’s brutally honest, nearly pessimistically realist lyricism outshines all. Every track details a different aspect of a confusingly chaotic atmosphere of emotion, as if he’s spiraling through a world that refuses to make sense, where every personal choice is met with unrelenting division. We find Rosenstock at his most universal, and yet his most personal, as with every song we see another example of someone who’s just trying to make it through a world that is unforgiving, that won’t allow him to progress without the bleakness and inequity beating down in front of him. We see Jeff tackle a lot of ideas here, ones that all gently segue into the next. “Nikes (Alt)” finds Rosenstcok beating himself up for falling into materialistic tendencies, knowing that he’s complacent in a unjust system, penning the lyrics, “Trying to find the words to explain what it feels like/ Buggin’ out like “Wait, did I say something weird?/But that is just the price of faking like we’re innocent”. “Beauty of Breathing” lets the lyrics pause and literally breathe in and out, with the words of each line moving in and out of each other, while still showcasing the anxiety of feeling like no matter what you do, you’re doing the wrong thing. “I walk outside and people say,/ "Hey!"/ And sometimes I just wanna say/ "Hey! Go away! Go away!"/So I guess I better stay inside”. The best example of any, however, must be the albums’ opener, “NO TIME”, where Jeff lays out the whole albums’ thesis and conceit. “Exploiting all my deep narcissistic tendencies/ Basking in the fruits of my soft complicity/ Did you turn into a person that you really want to be?/ I didn’t have the time” .
Ultimately, Jeff is focusing on something that we all know too well. There’s atrocities all over; there’s still dirty water in Flint, Michigan, there are still unarmed people of color being shot dead in the street just for taking a jog, there’s still children in cages on the border. But ultimately, as individuals, what can we do about all of that while still just trying to get through our lives for ourselves and the people that depend on us? There’s an amount of complicity that comes with complacency, but that complacency is nearly vital for survival in a world where the most powerful are actively taking advantage of those exact facjtors. Just a few months ago, we were living in a dizzyingly fast world we just wanted to keep up with. And now, more than ever, in a time where going outside to buy groceries is an immediate danger to yourself, your loved ones, and complete strangers, being complacent, and just looking out for yourself is necessary means of survival. NO DREAM is the perfect album for our current moment. Its’ arrival was sudden, and it speaks of the dire situation we were in morally and ethically just a few months ago, and of the overboiling point we’ve come upon. Rosenstock offers us no answers for this. He shows us what is, and he delivers how he feels about it. Where we’ll go is anyone’s guess, but something needs to be done about it. Just by saying that, and putting it to song, Jeff has done us a terrific service- he’s told the truth. And that truth reverberates and stirs inside you, stronger than any guitar lead, pounding rhythm, or shaky lyric delivery ever could.
NO DREAM is available from Polyvinyl, Bandcamp, as well as for free from Rosenstock’s label Really Records, and all streaming platforms. 10% of album proceeds will be donated to Food Not Bombs.