Favorite Tracks: “Nikes (Alt),” “NO D R E A M,” “State Line,” “***BNB”
It’s hard to explain now the monumental weight WORRY. carried almost immediately upon release. The record is still essentially perfect almost four years out, but the helium-balloon levels of elation it caused when it truly felt like reality itself was breaking is difficult to convey now. The steady, ever-climbing crescendo of “We Begged 2 Explode” caused an immediate rupture in the psyches of everyone who heard it, not directly about Trump, but perfectly capturing the anxiety as we all started to come to terms with the reality that we might actually be living in Trump’s America after all. Rosenstock has ended up feeling like the poet laureate of the Trump era—the voice of alienated, aging white millennials, if not the actual voice of an entire generation. In a time when a lot of political art has struggled to fully embrace or accept the weighted sense of powerlessness hanging all around us, Rosenstock has excelled at articulating a feeling of impotent, pent-up rage, better than just about anyone else. His latest effort, NO DREAM, feels once again like a perfect capturing of the zeitgeist in ways that are almost hard to believe.
Every piece of media that’s been released right now is required to be taken apart through the lens of the pandemic, so let’s get that out of the way up top. It is very, very strange to hear Rosenstock sing: “So long, been staying home less than leaving / Anxious more often than lookin’ alive / Stoned more than feeling, drunk more than sleeping” knowing full-well that he had to have written and recorded these words long before the entire globe went into lockdown, but damn if they don’t hit close to home at this exact moment. Rosenstock’s real gift is his ability to take stock of his own feelings and how they contradict his actions, and then find a way to make them universal, which is how an album written and recorded before the tightly confined anxieties of the pandemic can feel so damn prescient.
Of course that’s the real gift of an artist like Rosenstock or even Fiona Apple: they can sense the things hovering in the air all around us that so often can’t seem to be known or felt until we reach a sudden crisis, be it Trump getting elected or a global pandemic threatening life as we know it. We’ve entered a profound time of feeling like whatever dream we may have been attempting to will into existence is being shattered, and while for many of us we’ve felt that acutely during quarantine, the reality that Rosenstock seems to have understood is that the dream has been dissolving in front of us for years. The title track encapsulates the last few horrifying years so clearly that it hurts: “They were separating families carelessly / Under the guise of protecting you and me / Jailing innocents, no hope of being free / Crank the white noise and pretend that we’re asleep.”
Rosenstock identifies our collective weaknesses, our apathy and our inability to find a meaningful response in the face of overwhelming cruelty, and to transform that feeling into music that inspires moments of pure joy and elation. Owning and facing reality—your own limitations in the face of huge structural forces raining down cruelties you never asked to be made complicit in—can be a first step in the process of envisioning something better. Tracks like “Honeymoon Ashtray” encapsulate how fucked up we all are, how fucked up our entire mode of existing that we find ourselves living in can be, and our moments of trying to accept and love each other for the broken people that we all are. “Let’s remind each other what we’re doing right / Cause seek through cracks and surely we will find / Yeah, seek through cracks and surely we will find / Don’t seek through cracks when everything is fine.”
So yeah, NO DREAM is another stellar record from a guy we all know is uniquely equipped for our troubling times. Punching through the clouds of despair that hang all around us right now is no easy task; it can feel like tilting at windmills just to find the strength to shower these days, let alone consider grappling with the enormity of the brutality all around us. But Rosenstock reminds us that every day we learn to adapt and stay kind, to do what little we can to not make the world actively worse. It may be a long time before any of us get to see Death Rosenstock, but at the very least we can let this wonderful record wash over us while we do dishes and try not to resent our partners and roommates too much. It’s fantastic that proceeds from the record are going towards Food Not Bombs, an organization dedicated to feeding the hungry and resisting war the world over. It’d be great to throw a little cash to FNB after enjoying this album, or even better consider volunteering with your local chapter—I’ve been wary to go to a FNB meetup myself lately with COVID-19 spreading, but I’m hoping to get the courage to go soon. I know it’s what Jeff Rosenstock would want.