In 'POST-', Avowed Pessimist Jeff Rosenstock Surrenders To Creative Optimism

Feb 9, 2018
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Jeff Rosenstock is a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Long Island who began making music in his teens and 20s, playing ska and punk in the bands The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry. Since embarking on a solo career, Rosenstock also started Quote Unquote Records, which he calls a free/donation-based digital record label. Rosenstock's new album is called "POST-." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THIS USELESS ENERGY")

JEFF ROSENSTOCK: (Singing) Darkness holds, begging me to lose control. We wrestle it back and forth until urban silence cuts through night with a scalpel for the light that bleeds through the margins and leaves me semi-conscious. I haven't found the rhythm yet to anchor down my life. I didn't know I needed one to hold me through the night.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I haven't found the rhythm yet to anchor down my life, sings Jeff Rosenstock on that song, called "All This Useless Energy." Now in his mid-30s, Rosenstock has been making a notably garrulous form of punk rock for more than a decade now, and his new album, "POST-," is a highly enjoyable addition to his body of speechifying set to music. That's "POST-" with a hyphen, as in postmodern or post-punk or, given his tendency to work himself into a tizzy, this one seems apt - postapocalyptic. In his songwriting, Rosenstock veers between small, closely observed scenes and bigger, broad-canvas themes. This album's most elaborate statement is the seven minutes it takes for him to sum up the state of the Union in a song called "USA."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "USA")

ROSENSTOCK: (Singing) I saw the sign, but it was misleading. I fought the law, but the law was cheating, screaming for help, but somebody keeps on telling me to settle down. Please be honest. Tell me; was it you? Clerk at the Midwestern service station - striped uniform, giggling at catch phrases, look in her eyes like we're up to something. Oh, it doesn't matter now. Man in a crossover...

TUCKER: Please be honest, Rosenstock sings in that song. Tell me; was it you? I won't hate you. I just need to know. He could be talking to a lover who has betrayed him or asking someone who they voted for in the last election. All around him, Rosenstock sees and hears echoes of his own frustrations and befuddlement about the world. He is a world-class complainer and one of music's better illustrators of angry confusion. On a superb song such as "Yr Throat," he nearly goes hoarse yelling about finding his own voice only to realize he lacks a purpose for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YR THROAT")

ROSENSTOCK: (Singing) I can't find any way. I can't find any way to relax. I can't do anything. I can't do anything of impact. I emptied out my brain in hopes that I would have some success finding some clarity, but I just made a mess. What's the point of having a voice? What's the point of having a voice when it gets stuck inside your throat? I'll ramble incessantly.

TUCKER: In his blabbermouth eloquence, his compulsive confessionalism, Rosenstock reminds me of another effusive wordsmith - Loudon Wainwright III. But where Wainwright contrasts his edgy speech with attractive folk-based melodies, Rosenstock places his copious verbiage in a punk rock context, as can be heard in this fractured homage to The Ramones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEATING MY HEAD AGAINST A WALL")

ROSENSTOCK: (Singing) Talk, talk, talk, talk, talking to you, but you don't want to hear me speak. I'm try, try, try, try, trying to give you the courtesy of listening - beat, beat, beat, beat, beating my head against a wall - beat, beat, beat, beat, beating my head against a wall. I know, know, know, know, know in my heart that all I want to see is peace. But I, I, I, I, I want to fight you with every little bit of me. Beat, beat, beat, beat...

TUCKER: When Rosenstock decides to lower his volume and slow down for a few minutes, he reveals himself as a singer-songwriter with a gift for delicate melodies. He assumes the plaintive voice of a dissatisfied fellow who rides the subway aimlessly at night to avoid being alone with his thoughts at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9/10")

ROSENSTOCK: (Singing) Every night you go to bed, you wake up just a little more in pain. Every time you're dressing for a sunny day, the clouds surprise you with rain - every cigarette you smoke 'cause you're addicted to a quiet source of company, every time you told them you were busy 'cause you'd rather go to sleep. Nine times out of 10, I'll be stoned on the subway, reading backlit directives of what I should do, dodging eye contact with anyone who looks my way. Nine times out of 10, I'll be thinking of you.

TUCKER: Jeff Rosenstock loads up this album "POST-" with song titles like "Powerlessness" and "Beating My Head Against The Wall." But his work stands as a contradiction of such depressive sentiments. Furiously prolific, his power pop anthems are his best response to a world he insists is conspiring against him. Ultimately Jeff Rosenstock is an avowed pessimist constantly surrendering to creative optimism.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Jeff Rosenstock's new album called "POST-." Coming up, we remember John Perry Barlow, an influential activist for a free and open Internet. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SONG, "SOUTHWOOD PLANTATION ROAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.