Released earlier this year, Jeff Rosenstock’s We Cool? was the byproduct of recording sessions that set out to build “pop songs…that got real weird and gross,” as the Brooklyn-based artist, formerly of the overhyper, overdrunk whatever-rock band Bomb the Music Industry!, recounted on his website.
Sure, things get gross. Just read the song titles. Rosenstock lets his voice coast to a falsetto on the keyboard-carting romp “Nausea.” Immediately after, there’s an alt-country swagger on “Beers Again Alone,” which dissects loneliness with trademark self-deprecation. There’s even a sense of sweaty unease on “Novelty Sweater,” which constricts the listener in an itchy, glitch marriage of Weezer-grade fuzz and 8-bit texture. This is the same song that opens with the claustrophobic scene-setter, “stuck in a room, clutched to an aching womb/my mind like a trap.” Well, yeah, I guess you could say things get weird too, with lines like that serving as striking evidence.
But honestly, things are no weirder or grosser than the countermovement Rosenstock started in Brooklyn basements in 2004 with a band named after the explosive act of destroying the distribution method behind modern music. Bomb the Music Industry! gave (and still gives) away all their music for free under Creative Commons licenses and Rosenstock’s own label, Quote Unquote Records. They fought to keep their shows all-ages and under $10. BTMI! fans were encouraged (with some DIY posturing) to make their own merch with easily available logo stencils. How punk is that?1
With that in mind, how does We Cool? advance this mission that Rosenstock himself makes a point to outdo with every successive venture? After all, this LP follows his solo excursion into hesitant adulthood, lovingly titled I Look Like Shit. It also comes after two EPs under Antarctigo Vespucci, a double dollop of fuzzy pop-rock half-helmed by Fake Problems’ Chris Farren. And while that project might have been named after both musicians’ desire to paint 2010s life in a light that’s a little colder and more realistic in its explorations, it still knew how to have some fun.
Maybe that’s what makes We Cool? so weird and so gross: the songs are loud, proud, and definitely Rosenstock. It’s what they carry that really is none of those things except, of course, the last one.
It’s hard to nail down the thematic centerpiece of this latest Rosenstock record when each song seems like an emotional breakthrough, or at least a painfully honest vignette that seems a few frames closer to a delicious state of “moving on.” Then again, it also seems like the majority of We Cool? does successfully chronicle a “moving on,” just a world that seems to do so without Rosenstock at the captain’s controls. An easy choice would be to peg the aforementioned “Nausea” as the definite thesis statement. It’s bouncy, noisy, and alcohol-soaked, just like any BTMI! barnstormer in history. It digs an arsenal of instruments out of the closet: bright keyboards, a choir-costuming set of gang vocals, slide guitar, and sunny pop horns. It’s also daringly direct, listing off “Evenings of silence and morning of nausea” with an unwavering, elevated vocal tone that’s neither too heightened nor too reigned-in. After all, this is as much excitement as the handful of hours between happiness and a hangover can allow.
But no, wait, that’s not it: cycle your Click Wheel down two tracks and press play on “I’m Serious, I’m Sorry.” That title, amid other selections like “Polar Bear or Africa,” which omits a question mark in a fit of endless confusion, punches through with a comma, adding the first true pause 2 in the album’s running time. That doesn’t just stop in a 101-class lesson in literary analysis 3. The music behind Rosenstock’s memory has a similar dynamic, with palm-muted verses and a cathartic, gut-rending refrain. There’s no incredible burst of positive energy, feigned or otherwise. When it reaches its most exhaustive peak, Rosenstock’s voice seems to be sliced by something, but he powers through the cut, enough to bleed out a one-line epiphany: “I can’t accept all the bad things that happen.” We Cool? is gross and weird because it corrals together a dozen tracks mapping out this shaky road to acceptance. No one wants to confront that head on. Rosenstock does so behind pop structure and infectious energy to lessen the blow. On “Sorry,” when these two safeguards are largely stripped away, the engine behind these new songs whirrs more loudly, even over his smoky howl.
Some of these stabs at amateur cartography do so by focusing on an individual struggle, a “person-vs-world” mentality. The first verse on the entire LP blares this like a buzzing neon sign, where Rosenstock explains “When your friends are buying starter homes with their accomplishments/Drinking at a house show can feel childish and embarrassing/With people glaring because despite what the advertisements said: malt liquor doesn’t make you young.” The title of track one ironically reads like a cynical ad slogan, “Get Old Forever.” There it is again, that pang of “moving on without” that undeniable crushing feeling accompanying being left behind in an alley of onset adulthood. Rosenstock’s narrator has friends signing new leases without a problem, yet the car which adorns the front of We Cool’s is totaled and useless. That vehicle’s lease is complicated and it’s aging without repair.
But it’s not like We Cool? gets its name from the crashed car, or the Simpsons-esque conversation it could spark. (“Sorry, I busted your car, Flanders. We cool?” “Sure diddly-ding, Homer!”) It comes from the tenuous relationships stacked here, shifting the focus towards a “person-vs-person” boxing match.
“You, In Weird Cities” and “Hey Allison!” are the best pair to analyze head-to-head. In both corners, the two songs kick off the same, with high-energy tom-tom backbeats and stories beginning in different cities, the former in Chicago and the latter somewhere in New Jersey. The first track’s plan of attack is a little more sporadic, because Rosenstock spreads his subjects all over the United States for most of the song. “Allison” only has one central subject – its title character – and so therefore the ode is singular, a song structured like correspondence between two recipients.
Yet, despite this more focused narrative, “Hey Allison!” only clocks in at 1:52, so its zeroing in doesn’t really zoom in too much. That’s why its choruses are the most personal, the “Hey Allison” refrain swapping in different phrases bundling together honesty and distance, most notably the last one, which has the narrator confirming “This sudden detachment from friendship is making [them] ache.” “You, in Weird Cities” instead uses this distance to assuage an ache, rather than make that ache known. The song’s title thus doesn’t come from these confessions, it comes from that choice – “But when I listen to your records/I don’t need to look at pictures/It’s like I’m hanging out with you in weird cities.”
So, yes, the path that We Cool? spends a little over 30 minutes paving is wrought with potholes of pain and cracks of careful self-analysis. What remains most apparent in its asphalt isn’t these slip-ups – they’re important to understanding Rosenstock’s modus operandi, though, not just on this album, but every one of them – it’s the fact that human relationships and one’s relationship to being human will always be better when those two facets of experience work together, not separately. There will always be distance between those two things; it’s just how one learns to negotiate that gap.
And for Rosenstock, it might always be learned through music.