Jeff Rosenstock : HELLMODE

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Jeff Rosenstock Hellmode review

Rapid, disorienting, unpredictable shifts in genre. Drop-of-the-hat tempo changes that transition from steady, cautious rhythms to raging blast beats in the blink of an eye. Disembowlingly honest lyrics, splattering an unstoppable stream of manic insecurity square onto the back of the listener’s eardrums—and that’s just the first song. Jeff Rosenstock, DIY-punk stalwart, formerly of Bomb the Music Industry and Arrogant Sons of Bitches, returns with his fifth solo release HELLMODE—which is, perhaps, better understood not just as an album, but as a holistic snapshot of Rosenstock’s mental state, extracted from his brain like a volatile chemical and sifted through a Telecaster and a whole load of fuzz pedals.

HELLMODE quickly lays out its mission statement in its first two, songs—opener “WILL U STILL U,” which deals with a relationship mired in self-loathing, and “HEAD,” an agitated and belligerent political track. “It’s currently obvious there are no fair elections / There is no constitution and there is no bill of rights,” asserts Rosenstock with a choppy, mechanical scream, channeling the obsessive, terrified focus of a man who seems only a few short steps away from spontaneous combustion. It is these two subjects—interpersonal conflict and political turbulence—with which the bulk of HELLMODE is preoccupied (perhaps a better word would be “fixated”), although such a description really ought only to be treated as a cursory summary. Because to say that the record indulges in anything as clear-cut or dualistic as definitive themes seems to miss the point of the erratic, scatty pop-skate-rock-hardcore-dream-punk altogether.

Rather than laying out its author’s thoughts and feelings in a rationalised or easily-accessible manner, HELLMODE treats us to a ceaseless barrage of mental noise, a frenetic unloading of every last one of Rosenstock’s neuroses at every level—global, national, and individual. Even the song titles—each one written in all caps—look like they’re yelling at you through your computer screen. Navigating the track listing feels like an exercise in being jolted from one disaster to another, and much of the album offers very little in the way of reassurance; “But what you gonna do when it’s gotta stop? / Rise up in the street, get shot by the cops” we’re warned in “I WANNA BE WRONG,” while the bouncy basslines and cheery pop melodies of “FUTURE IS DUMB” belie its bleak message: “The future is gone / The present’s insane.”

And yet the frantic nihilism that often grips Rosenstock’s lyrics on HELLMODE is often undercut by the blistering, life-affirming urgency that comprises his musical instincts, and, throughout the album, rays of something that looks an awful lot like optimism cleave a path through the haze. After all, HELLMODE has no title track, but track 7, “HEALMODE,” is the next best thing. It’s a cozy, gentle, acoustic song celebrating human connection (“Perfect lazy days / Where all you need is me / And all I need is you”). Meanwhile, “GRAVEYARD SONG” offers advice and consolation on toxic friendships—albeit the kind entirely befitting an album shaped by so much fear and cynicism. And the bridge on closer “3 SUMMERS” feels like a brilliant, intractable beam of joy in comparison with the 30 minutes of shimmering anxiety that precede it. “I want the universe to glow / Until it’s too bright for our eyes,” Rosenstock pleads, before building up into an explosive, triumphant climax that sees him bellowing—and perhaps begging—to “stay young until you die!”, as if it’s the vital, irrevocable answer to life, the universe, and everything.

And all these apparent contradictions actually make perfect sense, because they’re a perfect sonic replica of how it feels to live in such interesting times as our own. Conflicted, but not confused, HELLMODE’s lingering suggestion is that, fractured and scattered somewhere throughout the quivering glut of uncertainty that is modern life, there are the teeny-tiny germs of one-hundred thousand puzzle pieces that—if correctly assembled—might direct us toward a new world, where everything, maybe, is headed on a trajectory towards being sort of alright. You know, if we’re lucky. Probably.

Label: Polyvinyl

Year: 2023

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