Jeff Rosenstock – ‘HELLMODE’

By Ash Bebbington

Punk cult hero Jeff Rosenstock’s latest record ‘HELLMODE’ is a glorious contradiction. A record that melds poppy melody with deep personal introspection, gleefully scrappy punk rock with issues that face humanity as a whole. Rosenstock is not an artist who shies away from a difficult topic or a catchy melody, but never before has he combined the two so starkly. The result is his finest solo record since his career-defining 2016 release ‘WORRY’, an album that makes you feel down and overjoyed in equal measure once the final song fades out.

Rosenstock is unashamed to admit that he went into this record looking to make music that had a poppier sound. If you’re still immature enough to want to yell the word ‘sellout’ in his general direction, like any punk lifer ,that’s something Rosenstock actually considered while he was making ‘HELLMODE’. He said: “it’s probably not gonna be on the radio anyway, so it doesn’t feel like a sellout move. We felt free to make something that just kicks as much ass as possible.” The creative risk has certainly paid off. Sonically, the album hops back and forth between as much pure unadulterated joy as guitar music can provide, and some much more sombre, tender moments.

The lyrics – full of Rosenstock’s trademark wit – tack to the darker side, looking inwards at his inner struggles, while also looking outward to the struggles facing humanity in 2023. Indeed, the ‘end of the world’ is a theme that Rosenstock returns to over and over again on ‘HELLMODE’, not least on the paradoxically upbeat and summery ‘FUTURE IS DUMB’.

The vocal hooks and scrappy punk sound are uplifting and vibrant, at complete odds with the lyrics which reference the anxiety many of us feel about the future as Rosenstock sings; “it’s weird that we’ve become numb to it, we’ve grown accustomed to the fear”. There are plenty of acts writing songs about the state of the world but few are this cathartic and fun, and so obviously designed to bop around to as the world burns.

Album opener ‘WILL U STILL U’ is another track that follows the happy music/dark lyrics dichotomy, opening with summery chords and a reserved vocal before exploding into life with chaotic punk drums and guitars. It’s an unashamedly poppy track with enough punk bite to please his longtime fans. Towards the end of the song, triumphantly visceral gang vocals come in and wail “will you still love me after giving up?”.

‘HEAD’ is the most traditionally ‘punk’ track on the record, opening with electric drums and yelped vocals. However, it’s laced with irresistible poppy hooks that make it an absolute earworm without sacrificing any of its edge.  The album’s standout moment, however, is ‘LIKED U BETTER’ featuring one of Rosenstock’s best and most instantaneous choruses to date. “I liked you better when you were on my mind” repeats Rosenstock, his band yelling the words along with him. It has a truly cathartic feel, and it’s already easy to tell that it’ll be a lot of fun to scream along with in a sweaty basement venue.

Apocalyptic lyrical themes are revisited on ‘SOFT LIVING’, a gloomy slacker rock track that sees Rosenstock sings “don’t wanna hold out for the end of the world.” ‘GRAVEYARD SONG’ goes harder-hitting still, tapping into the anxiety around the climate crisis as he croons “watching the world burst into flames for no reason, other than the fear that you were wrong about something”. It’s a slow, sorrowful acoustic guitar track that gives way to full band sonics and triumphant vocal hooks that urge the listener to take control of their own destiny in the face of the world ending, crooning “when somebody causes pain it’s okay to push them away”.

One of the album’s few truly tender moments is ‘HEALMODE’, built around gently plucked acoustic guitar chords. It’s a love letter to rainy days in California, that allow Rosenstock to stay inside and spend time with his partner. ‘LIFE ADMIN’ is another track that sees Rosenstock turn inwards for inspiration; the lyrics are a classic example of his trademark observational lyrical style. He gives a tongue-in-cheek nod to the notion that people may perceive him to be selling out due to his lifestyle as he quips: “Now I’m living with the fear that anyone will find out how I live / Having barbecues out on the deck drinking ice cold beers under the fire season sunset.”

Jeff Rosenstock is one of the finest, most creative punk artists on the planet today, and ‘HELLMODE’ is a daring addition of the very highest quality to an already incredible back catalogue. It’s also one of his most accessible, so if you’re not already familiar with his music it’s a fantastic place to start. If you’re anxious about the way the world is going, throw this record on and sing along to some incredible choruses while you watch it all burn.

ASH BEBBINGTON

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