By Jade Curson
“Hello best friend. It’s me.”
These are the softly-spoken words which announce the arrival of Jeff Rosenstock’s fourth record Post-, a surprise New Year’s Day release and the first album of 2018. An incongruous introduction, perhaps, for an album that launches immediately into the seven minute tirade of bewilderment, exhaustion and betrayal that is opener ‘USA’. But in a way, this contrast is the perfect signifier for what is to follow: a record littered with unexpected moments and shifts in pace. The work of an artist who is trying to move out of his comfort zone. “I always go into writing records with some new way of approaching it,” he explains. “I’ve never been much for ‘oh that last record’s good, so let’s just make a better version of that’.”
When I speak to Rosenstock he’s at home in Brooklyn, working on a separate project – writing music for Cartoon Network show Craig Of The Creek – before taking off on tour next month. It’s unsurprising that I’ve caught Rosenstock working; a lifelong proponent of DIY culture, he is one of the most prolific artists in the game. In addition to near-constant touring and his side project with Cartoon Network, he also runs his own label and occasionally finds the time to work as a producer. When I ask him exactly how many bands he’s involved with, we tally four before he gives it up as a bad job. “I don’t know. I’m in a ton of bands. I’m in and out of stuff all the time.” We put the impossible task of counting his commitments aside, and instead move on to the inspiration – read: frustration – behind Post-.
“It’s hard to quantify why, but it just felt like a new year’s day record.” An interesting proposition for a record that deals primarily in reflection, in feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. At first, it seems almost fundamentally at odds with the idea of fresh starts and looking forward that are typically associated with a new year. But there are moments of hope here that suggest this is not just about wallowing, but of taking stock – of allowing yourself to process all that you’ve experienced and moving on from it. Perhaps the most obvious interpretation of that intentionally-incomplete title is that this record is Post-2017, an acknowledgement of survival for those of us who did survive it.
‘Post-’ is often a marker used to describe an aspect of the present in relation to a significant past event, particularly with regard to natural disasters or unprecedented violence. Post-war. Post-9/11. Post-Columbine. Post-Katrina. Similarly, it’s almost impossible to reflect on 2017 without considering the repercussions of the US presidency. This record exists as a snapshot of a world that is Post-Trump. ‘USA’ in particular captures the gut-punch feeling of being governed by an administration championed by (alleged) child molesters and Klan members. “Please be honest, tell me was it you?” he pleads of those around him, trying to make sense of how ordinary people have been moved to elect a cartoon villain into office. “I won’t hate you, I just need to know”. This bewilderment is quickly transposed by anger and betrayal as the song closes out with a chant of “Et tu, USA”. But while the influence of 45 is evident throughout, Rosenstock’s focus is directed at the impact on communities and ordinary people. This is no accident: when it comes to talking about Trump, he has more important things on his mind: “I don’t think it’s important anymore,” he says, “because the things we’re talking about with him is like ‘oh he said he was a stable genius’. Who gives a shit? Like, Donald Trump said something dumb again. It doesn’t matter. The policies he’s enacting, that matters, and we’ve gotta fight that.”
Post- dwells a lot on the emotional fallout, but it also signals a desire to start looking forward and fighting back. Throughout the record, Rosenstock cycles through all the stages of grief, but closes out the record with ‘Let Them Win’, a lo-fi call to arms to take that frustration and turn it into something positive:
“I think we have to think about the 2018 midterm elections, and get as many fucking Republicans out of congress as we can. And I think constantly talking about Trump, it distracts us from that. If you look at CNN ratings, they’ve skyrocketed since he was president, and these people who are trying to pretend they’re on our side, they’re not on our fucking side, they’re on their money’s side. If they were on our side they would actively tell us everything we could do to stop him, but they don’t. They just keep telling us the dumb shit he’s saying. I think we’ve talked about him for long enough, and he’s still in office, so that didn’t work. So now we need to find out what works.”
The political chaos of last year may be the most dominant theme of the record, but a title as intentionally ambiguous as Post- naturally lends itself to more than one interpretation. In its most basic sense, ‘post-’ simply indicates that which has come after, and Rosenstock has seen some significant changes between last record Worry and now. From his recent label move to Polyvinyl, to the new gig writing music for Cartoon Network, Rosenstock seems to have a lot more professional stability. In Worry, and 2015’s We Cool?, there is a recurring theme of self-analysis, of justifying his place in the punk scene while his peers settle down, get married, start families. In Post-, though, this no longer seems to be a pressing concern. “I think there’s bigger problems now, and also I’m doing better. I’m busy, I have two jobs and I don’t really feel as directionless as I once felt, which is nice. So it wouldn’t be honest to really talk about that stuff anymore. I still feel like that from time to time emotionally, but it seemed like a dishonest thing to talk about. It wasn’t the thing that was stressing me out, I usually write about whatever is stressing me the fuck out.”
Musically, there are plenty of moments on Post- which would feel completely at home on Rosenstock’s previous records – and this makes sense, considering that many of the songs were at least partially written before the release of Worry. But that’s not to say that it feels like a rehash of his older material; the record is littered with left-field choices – from the spaced out interlude in ‘USA’, to the five minutes of synth-heavy static that closes out ‘Let Them Win’ – that indicate an artist striving to push himself creatively. “I’ve always been interested in dynamics and space, but I’m always stacking things on top of each other. This is the first time that I tried to allow for some space on this record in a way that I hadn’t before.” In the same way that all other ‘posts’, from post-punk to postmodernist literature, take the roots of an already established concept and twist them into something new, this record is Post-Rosenstock.
And, as with most things in 2018, this record is also Post-Weinstein. The Weinstein allegations and #MeToo movement set off a chain reaction, with predatory behaviour being exposed in every industry. The punk community was certainly no exception, and the tail end of 2017 saw a wave of artists and industry types called out for a huge spectrum of offences.
It’s hard not to think about this when listening to the fraught exasperation of ‘Yr Throat’. As Rosenstock snarls “It’s not like any other job I know, if you’re a piece of shit they don’t let you go”, it feels like a knowing look around at his peers.When asked, he points out that ‘Yr Throat’ was actually written with specific reference to frequent and highly-publicised instances of police brutality: “We have fucking racist murderers as cops, and they keep their jobs! And then we just don’t talk about it, because there’s so much of that everywhere that you’re just paralysed by it.” But he also agrees that the unsatisfied demand for accountability is relatable on more than one level.
“If I’m honest it’s a song about wanting to stand up for shit and not knowing how to do it, having a hard time doing it and then hopefully trying to get better at it, because it’s going to get worse if you don’t stand up for the things you believe in. And that goes for trying to make shows safer spaces, and trying to make the world a safer space for everybody, where it seems like there’s accountability for people who do fucked up things. It seems like a really basic thing. “
While it may seem like a basic thing in theory, the sudden increased demand for accountability includes the expectation that outed abusers face real consequences beyond simply being called out about their behaviour. At the start of last year, information surfaced about Rosenstock’s friend and peer Ian Graham (of Cheap Girls), who released a statement admitting to ‘predatory behaviour’ and dissolving the band. Fans were disappointed to discover that the Cheap Girls records were still available to download from Rosenstock’s label Quote Unquote for several months after the band broke up. In the week following the release of Post-, he faced some backlash from those who felt there was a disconnect between his words and his perceived lack of action.
“Obviously it didn’t feel great,” he begins, when I ask him how it felt to be on the other side of that search for accountability. “That said – I admitted then and I’ll admit now – I fucked up. I didn’t take them down, I should have taken them down. And I did take them down when somebody called it to my attention. And I appreciate people calling that to my attention, because I don’t know everything. And sometimes you need to get a little bit of a kick in the ass, I guess.” It’s a relief to hear Rosenstock hold his hands up so readily to the mistake. Recently we’ve seen so many musicians who, when asked to explain or take accountability for their comments or actions, have chosen to ignore the issue or shut down any attempts by fans to have that conversation. It’s been disheartening to see the response of these artists, many of whom were happy to talk about equality and accountability until it required them to partake in any real introspection. It’s refreshing to speak to an artist who understands that accountability is more than a buzzword, and while it would have been easy for him to end the call and send an angry message to his PR, Rosenstock – though understandably cautious in his response – seems open to the question: “I understand that it’s something I have to talk about from time to time now.”
“It’s hard to explain it, and it sucks when that kind of thing happens and it’s somebody who’s very close to you and you just don’t know what the fuck to do. When I spoke to people I understood where they were coming from. I just have a hard time talking about that stuff on Twitter, I don’t feel like that’s a place where I can start involving people’s fucking private lives, know what I mean? You reach for the right thing to say in 280 characters, and when you’re talking to a bunch of people about something so fucking important? What happens if you get that wrong?
“When it all happened and once the record came out, and I blocked people, I almost immediately unblocked them cause I was like ‘what the fuck am I doing’? I just want to talk to people and figure out what you want me to do here. It was like, ‘I took the records down. I don’t understand why I am a target right now.’ But then I talked to people and I do understand. It’s difficult to talk about this because there’s so much of the private side of it that I don’t want to violate. But the people who questioned that, at the end of the day they were right to question that, and I hope I cleared it up.”
Post-, intentionally or not, aligns with a multitude of themes. But despite all of these interpretations, it is those words that introduce the album – “Hello best friend, it’s me” – spoken by longtime Rosenstock collaborator Laura Stevenson, that capture the true importance of Post-. The record serves as a commemoration of everything we lived through in 2017: an aural time capsule for a year that will probably only be remembered fondly by racists, millionaires, and racist millionaires. A year where everyone else really needed a best friend. Someone to listen, to share in the fear and confusion and hopelessness, and remind us that we are not feeling these things alone. And to remind us that, after this feeling of despair and paralysis has passed, there’s still work to do. By the time the record fades out in a haze of gentle synthy white noise, that brief spoken introduction no longer feels like a misjudged juxtaposition of contradictory themes. Far more than just a nod to a friendship between the two musicians, Stevenson’s opening line is as much a message from the record to its world-wearied listener. A comforting voice at your lowest ebb. A record that understands the importance of grieving, before starting to organise and rebuild.
Post- is out now digitally worldwide, and is available for free download. In the UK, Specialist Subject have physical pre-orders here.