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Jeff Rosenstock - NO DREAM Music Album Reviews

New York’s most anxious punk delivers hook after hook on an album that deals with evergreen sociopolitical concerns yet sounds like it could’ve been written 30 minutes ago.

Does Jeff Rosenstock ever get tired of seeing the future? Basically every musical and ethical component that his previous band Bomb the Music Industry! stood for in 2005 still remain. Bigger labels have allowed him to maintain a pay-what-you-want model that predated Radiohead’s famous method of sale for their 2007 album In Rainbows and predicted the current outright reliance on tip jars and shareware. Rosenstock’s side projects variously embrace ska, folk-punk, and Long Island pop-punk, long before these profoundly uncool offshoots were finally given their due as gateways to deeper DIY engagement.


But his mainstream breakthrough didn’t arrive until 2016’s WORRY., when the election of Donald Trump accelerated America’s degradation to the point where the country started to look exactly like the worst fears of New York’s most anxious punk. After 2018’s POST- emerged to audit year one of the #Resistance, NO DREAM asks: When retail therapy, mindfulness apps, and pyrrhic political engagement all fail to provide anything more than a distraction, how do we live with ourselves? It’s quintessential Jeff Rosenstock—an album formulated around evergreen sociopolitical concerns yet sounds like it could’ve been written 30 minutes ago.
Once again releasing an album with no advance warning, Rosenstock gets to the point in less than a minute with “NO TIME,” a welcome reacclimation to his hardcore roots delivered with frothing intensity. It’s a different kind of urgency than the one lent to POST-, which began with a chant of “we’re tired and bored” and ended with “we’re not gonna let them win,” less an expression of defiance than exhaustion. With meaningful, large-scale political change seeming further out of reach, the only conceivable path to serenity is having the wisdom to know what internal changes are possible. “Did you turn into a person that you really want to be?” Rosenstock yells throughout “NO TIME,” at you, at the mirror, rhetorically. Perhaps other artists have expressed more high-minded or effective anger at late capitalism’s human cost, but no one is more adept at validating the helplessness that comes from being constantly activated and totally powerless.

Rosenstock’s solo career almost functions as a treatise about the lie of American industrialization. Once machines relieved humans of backbreaking physical and mental labor, surely we’d have more time to dedicate to personal improvement, community organizing, arts, and culture. Instead, the distractions just became shinier and more inescapable, the ostensible freedom of working from home revealed as being your own browbeating boss 24/7. And now that the economy has cratered and many people have nothing but time for all those New Year’s resolutions and long-shelved self-improvement projects, there’s even less incentive to take them on.

The righteous aims of NO DREAM are true, even if they’re at broad targets—consumerism rebranded as morality; toxic online forums; one side of the political spectrum offering increasingly emboldened cruelty while the other is “weaponizing what’s left of your empathy.” “I’ve been told most my life, ‘Try and see the other side’/By people who have never tried to see the other side,” Rosenstock mocks during “Scram!,” giving them the half-a-bar they deserve. A few months ago, “Scram!”’s central hook (“Don’t you wanna go away?”) might’ve meant signing out of Twitter or Facebook, getting more involved in a local election, or finding solace in a marathon Death Rosenstock gig. The shoutalongs of NO DREAM are potent enough for individual use, but their communal impact is now sadly theoretical. Where does anyone go now when going off the grid means almost total disconnection from society?

Two years ago, Rosenstock simply bemoaned the existence of “All This Useless Energy,” and NO DREAM tries to figure out where it eventually ends up. Fittingly, it’s far more spiteful and aggressive than his recent endeavors into power-pop, Billy Joel piano balladry, and Neil Young covers would’ve predicted. Pretty much every song on NO DREAM ends up veering towards the raw materials of Rosenstock’s less critically revered days. “Scram!” takes a midsong trip to the House of Blues for a metalcore breakdown, while the actual skramz pop up on the title track, which spends its first two minutes lost in the dual drones of college rock jangle and an endless scroll of atrocity. In the past, this kind of genre flipping could be used as a flex; on NO DREAM, it’s the sound of the walls closing in.

The second half of NO DREAM narrows its scope to Rosenstock’s life as a musician and the self-doubt, heightened expectations, and precarity that results from spending decades dedicating one’s life to something that, at most, might provide enough success to justify carrying on. Yet, it also features some of the most expansive, rich writing of his career. “Be an aging tourist/Hustle like a tortoise,” he half-jokes during “f a m e,” a jerky dance-punk throwback to a time when it was a lot easier for acts at the upper echelons of indie rock to make ends meet. From that point forward, Rosenstock can only remember the good old days in the most unromantic terms: “Pictures of toilets across the planet,” increasingly short phone calls back home, a pyramid of beer cans in a flophouse that he’s embarrassed to have made and too proud to knock down.

These would be worthwhile even just as bitterly funny snapshots of a band successful enough to play to arms-crossed crowds in Germany. But as he did with WORRY.’s “Festival Song,” Rosenstock can zoom out just enough to see the bigger picture, specifically, his complicity in the compromises everyone needs to make in order to make late capitalism work. The verses of “***BNB” would be hilarious Airbnb host reviews if they weren’t so heartbreaking—the first is dedicated to a stranger named Sam, stuck in a dead-end job and a terrible marriage, her house secretly being rented out by her mother so guys like Rosenstock can save a few bucks on tour. Delivered in a sing-song cadence, “I used the shower sponge when you went to Spain alone” should live on as the most devastating encapsulation of the pathetic intimacy generated by platform business.

Rosenstock’s previous two albums ended on notes of bleak solidarity: Perfection doesn’t exist, so let’s enjoy each other’s humanity; they’re probably going to win but we won’t just let them. NO DREAM closer “Ohio Tpke” is dedicated to “the only person I ever wanted to like me,” and it starts out like so many other love letters from the road—counting the dashes in the median on the ride home, songs shared on a summer night, a simple connection on FaceTime easing loneliness better than a room full of fans. “Ohio Tpke” morphs to embody any number of quintessentially American rock bands—Bruce Springsteen, Against Me!, Wilco, Built to Spill—and the mood shifts just as quickly, as Rosenstock recognizes how everything required to make a life on the road work at his age gets less resilient. The phone calls get shorter, the reunions get more awkward, agitated, more desperate, more definitive: “I hate coming home/I hate leaving home.” If it was written by someone who showed even the slightest bit less commitment to their craft and cause than Jeff Rosenstock, I’d take “Ohio Tpke” as a retirement announcement.

NO DREAM is about what really goes on when you take enough time to think about whether you’ve turned into the person that you really wanted to be. Maybe there will be freedom from having to repeat the same cycle of releasing an album and trying to find just enough income away from home to do the same thing over again, two years older than you were before. Maybe Rosenstock writes a batch of songs about slowing down just enough to find glimmers of inner peace, or the collective disbelief when someone else is president, or the disorientating euphoria of being able to leave our houses again. But if history’s any indication, even if all of that happens, Jeff Rosenstock will write about how nothing really changed on the most prophetic album of 2022.

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