by Kristy Diaz
When you wake up after an anxiety dream, in my experience, two things happen after the initial relief of discovering it was just a dream: you ruminate on its meaning – if it isn’t obvious from what you remember of the restless night – and then it sits with you for a while. Something you’re avoiding or unwilling to address? An external pressure weighing down on you? Well, tough luck, because whatever you’re worried about, your subconscious has now brought it to the fore and you have no choice but to acknowledge it.
No Dream, Jeff Rosenstock’s fourth album continues, at least thematically, in the same vein as his previous records – recounting worries and insecurities that have emerged and demand to be addressed. But the personal is political, as the saying goes, and alongside his reputation for nervous energy is that of an artist whose career is rooted and sustained in anti-capitalist belief; making this record, born unwittingly during a global pandemic and a mass protest movement, something of a reliable witness.
Originally set for a July release, the pandemic made Rosenstock’s original plans impossible, at which point he decided to put it out into the world in May. “I spoke to Polyvinyl [Records] and was like ‘Hey, let’s just put it out as soon as we can. I think that our fans would be stoked to have a record, and I would like to do that. I would like to put the record out and not have to think about it for two more months’,” he says, revealing that despite the success and profile he has built, putting out a record and not knowing how it will be received is as nervewracking as it’s ever been – in fact, more so: “[I was] way more nervous. Way more nervous. Because now I know it’s going to be received,” he laughs.
“Even when Bomb the Music Industry! [Rosenstock’s previous band] was picking up steam it was still like well, Punknews will cover it and there would be a couple hundred or a couple thousand people who hear it, and that’s it. It’s not really the same as where it’s at now and, you know, as much as I’m down to honestly represent myself, I don’t want people to fucking hate me. I don’t like negative criticism, it makes me feel bad, especially when I have said such personal stuff.”
Ever-relatable, those personal stories now have the added dimension of being interpreted by listeners through the filter of this new political context. And as someone who talks about “[being] sad and freaking out forever”, the songs frankly couldn’t be any more relevant, although that isn’t necessarily what he tried to achieve when writing them. “I feel like if I am tricking myself and telling myself that I know the way other people will feel about things I would be wrong,” he says. “So the best way that I can approach songs is just to try and be honest about how I feel and try to be truthful to whatever my experience has amounted to in this world. It’s nice when it seems like it does connect on a broader level. That’s what I think a songwriter hopes to do: to be able to write something that feels personal to myself but also can feel personal to someone else’s experiences and someone else’s truths.”
Rosenstock, of course, could not have predicted exactly where we would be right now, though none of the themes are entirely new: a health crisis has highlighted exactly how the hyper-capitalist, individualist economic model that works for no-one except those at the very top, is not failing, but working precisely as it intended. The Black Lives Matter movement has again, in the reality of continued violence and structural racism in every aspect of society, demonstrated that the oppressive police state, too, is functioning as designed. No Dream, while not specifically about these issues in the current timeframe will now undoubtedly be listened to with them in mind.
Compared with previous record POST-, released on New Year’s Day 2018 with its backdrop firmly set in the wake of Trump’s election, No Dream mostly rejects such specifics and instead points to a general feeling of unease and dissent that is characteristic of Rosenstock’s music. “I knew working on this record that I didn’t want it to feel as current as POST- felt because I don’t like to put myself in a box in a lot of ways, and I didn’t want to be the person who writes about the bad thing that’s happening this year and then next year I’ll put out another record about those bad things,” he explains.
But bad things, they keep coming. His records don’t need to be set in any particular timeframe for the subjects to be current – whether that’s the overbearing weight of mental illness or a late-capitalist nightmare – because they simply persist. Change, however, is happening. Even the most hardened cynic couldn’t deny the progress being made: communities uniting in protest for justice in cities all over the world in spite of the pandemic; direct action to remove slave trader statues when racist and bureaucratic systems had failed to do so; the work of activists bringing the position of defunding and abolishing the police into a mainstream conversation. If POST- was the soundtrack to a Trumpian dystopia, could No Dream soundtrack its overthrowing?
“I think sometimes it’s very hard for me to not focus on the things that are not changing,” Rosenstock begins. “Because while that is happening, it’s also important to take into account that none of the cops that murdered Breonna Taylor have been arrested and people have been calling for that for a hundred days [at the time of interview]. That over the weekend in California, an 18-year-old security guard got shot by the police because they thought he looked suspicious… there’s an endless amount of bad things that are still happening. There’s lynchings happening across our country right now.
“So, with the conversation opening up and the idea of capitalism maybe not working all that good, or the idea that the police actually are not agents of public safety but a militarized gang, those conversations moving into the mainstream is great. In my mind, I hope the momentum keeps up; I hope that with their tactics and with their weapons and with the control they have over us, I hope that they don’t succeed in waiting us out until everybody just gets too exhausted and people forget or stop thinking about it and they’re just like ‘well, we got a few good things to change’ and move on. I am hoping that this is the time where the real good changes happen. I think it can be, but I don’t think that it’s going to happen without a lot of tenacity from people who value equal rights and people who value their fellow person.”
Where personal struggles intersect with political context is where Rosenstock’s songwriting has always been most vital, and while he distances No Dream somewhat from the latter, it remains a compelling balance of both. There are outliers that confront issues head-on, including ‘Scram!’, the record’s first single and an anti-establishment youth punk anthem that found inspiration in the young activists speaking out following the 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. “I was seeing [them] speak in front of those huge crowds after that shooting and being like, ‘Hey, if you’re running for office and you get money from the gun lobby, fuck you. We’re the future, and we’re not fucking voting for you any more’ and my heart grew six sizes like the Grinch at Christmas,” Rosenstock says excitedly and emphatically, as though he thinks in italics and exclamation points.
“I was like ‘YES! Okay, the future is going to be good!’ But then seeing the talking head response of politicians being like [putting on a mocking Middle America-type voice] ‘You know what, they’re being kind of rude when they talk about it. And if they don’t want to listen to us, then we’re not gonna listen to what they have to say.’ It’s like, no dude, people have been listening to you for-fucking-ever because you have all the power, because you have all the money, and we’re fucking tired of it.
“That was kind of the energy that found its way into that song, and then it was topped off by driving around the country touring on POST- and seeing billboards and news articles that were against people going over to someone shitty who accepts NRA money eating lunch at a restaurant and just screaming at them while they’re eating. I think that’s fucking sick, because fuck those people. Those people have blood on their fucking hands. Those people are the reason kids are dying in schools. And then their response is ‘you know, you should really be civil about this stuff’. Like no, fuck you. Fuck incremental change, fuck being patient…” he continues as we discuss the ineffective nature of ‘civil’ conversations, before catching up with himself: “Sorry, I’m getting all fired up!”
Similarly, title-track ‘N O D R E A M’ addresses the familiar feeling of seeing the impact of violence daily but not knowing how to change it. It opens as a lazy lull, building momentum with chants of “It’s not a dream, it’s not a dream” before launching into an outburst of abrasive hardcore punk seemingly designed to jolt you awake, to remove any doubt of the situation’s reality and urgency. There’s no other way to interpret a lyric like “The only endgame for capitalism is dystopia”. The song’s volatility comes as a direct result of condensing so many of Rosenstock’s feelings into a four-minute burst: “I felt like I’m not really overtly addressing these things that much in this record. So if this is a song that makes it on to the record, then I am going to address the fuck out of it. I’m going to try and be really, really clear about how it feels to watch violence unfold before your eyes in every way, all at the hands of this capitalist system that rewards violence and doesn’t punish the people who perpetrate that violence and allows it to continue.”
Despite his assertion that No Dream “doesn’t really have an overarching theme”, even the most introspective and personal songs carry a rich and inseparable vein of protest. It holds that frustration and fear against a backdrop of sun-drenched California pop-punk; a jarring combination of feelings that play out beautifully in songs such as ‘f a m e’ which closes out with repeated yells of “you will not control me” in defiance while sounding like a beachfront party. “The songs that made sense to me were all the louder, faster, poppy punk songs,” he says, discussing what was driving No Dream’s upbeat sound. “I’ve been listening to a lot of pop-punk and ska-punk, a lot of reggae and dub, and music that just felt vibrant… I feel like I haven’t heard too many records in recent memory that have like hit me as a good summer punk record and I was like, I want to play that music live and I want to play this with my band and I want to do this.”
Those joyful songs rarely feel complacent or fully relaxed, though. In ‘The Beauty of Breathing’, the opening line “Sometimes I wanna take the car out on the road, flip it into park and smash myself into a million little pieces” takes the suffocating feelings that come with existing (and especially existing with anxiety) and turns them into something that sounds fun, with Rosenstock’s playful sarcasm alongside long-time friend and collaborator Laura Stevenson’s dual vocal adding lightness and melody to make it one of the record’s truly perfect moments.
“As a person, a lot of the way that I deal with those feelings is through humour and joking around. So even if the lyrics are super sad I try to make them at least darkly funny or whatever,” he explains. “And this is something hard to even accept personally, but I think it’s undeniable that if you do not feel any joy at all, you’re not going to have the energy to fight. And I think that when so many things are going wrong, it’s really hard to find any way that you could even accept that it’s okay to feel joy… It really is just about the overwhelming nature of feeling all of these things at once or trying to like, you know, [understand] how you can achieve any personal growth or just be a better partner, be a better friend or be a better family member while you are trying to navigate these systems that are designed to have violent results.”
It’s a welcome reminder that you have to let your discomfort sit alongside your happiness, and hope it’s enough to make it worthwhile. Ultimately, No Dream is a record full of eyes-open personal revolutions. And it’s where it serves its greatest purpose: by underlining that what you feel is real, what you see is real, the violence on the screen and on the streets is real, and it’s here for the long-haul until we change both ourselves and the systems in which we exist. It’s a big ask, but it’s one Rosenstock seems committed to, despite the shaky emotional ground on which he often finds himself. As we close out the conversation, I ask if there’s anything he wants to add: “Just thanks to everyone in Bristol who tore down that fucking statue.” He’s still here, and political as he’s ever been.