Home Is Where singer Brandon MacDonald is starting to dissociate. You might be too if you’re battling the inhibitions of being forced to live in a world you did not choose. “I always end up starting over again/The end of the world is taking forever,” she sings, as if in a daze. The band’s second LP, The Whaler, is billed as a concept album about how, to quote one song title, “everyday feels like 9/11”: a cyclical trudge through a catastrophe, its aftermath, and the ways in which we’ve become numb to it. Interpreting their I Became Birds follow-up as solely that, however, sells the record short. Instead, this album is the band bottling their energy as they find themselves constantly pushing for more when given so little: for actual enshrined equality, for the privilege of peace of mind, for the freedom to be an idiot and the luck to be forgiven. Home Is Where just want to live, really live, without feeling like they’re already dead.

After a nervous breakdown in 2021, MacDonald found herself disillusioned with the relentlessness of life and an increasingly apathetic society. She pinpoints the feeling on “9/12,” the shortest song on the record, placing minimalist piano over children babbling to offer one sentence only: “And on September 12th, 2001, everyone went back to work.” The band’s indictment is twofold: We tout resilience as a proud American trait, while unspeakable tragedies become increasingly mundane parts of our days. But MacDonald never sounds as weary or hopeless as the subject matter suggests. She’s wriggling and fighting for something, anything, to change—and that energy is what elevates The Whaler as a rowdy, worthwhile successor to I Became Birds.

Home Is Where approach emo like it’s a college course. Thanks to an unspoken tradition in the genre—cheeky name-drops like Chris Farley, Dale Earnhardt, and their lead single sharing its name with a Pittsburgh emo revival band—that’s apparent just by skimming the lyrics, but the real knowledge is in the music. The Whaler puts Home Is Where’s musical indexing skills on display, merging emo’s past and present into a fifth-wave blueprint of what makes the genre’s evolution so comprehensive. Tilley Komorny sprinkles in Midwest guitar tapping, Connor O’Brien nods to emo’s origins with heavy breakdowns on bass, and Josiah Gardella injects his drumming with the straightforward punk that started it all. Once again, MacDonald contributes delicate singing saw and harmonica to “Whaling for Sport” and the cascading horns that rain down in “Skin Meadow” sound like Cap’n Jazz covering the Olivia Tremor Control. Whirring above are tape loops they manually cut up, stomped under their boots, and popped into the microwave; the final product is pitched up and crinkled, creating a sepia-toned ambiance that lends instrumental outros and dreamy interludes a chilly air. Throughout, MacDonald splits her time between singing, yelling, and screaming, each mode purging a different type of heartfelt defeat. She builds off last year’s split Dissection Lesson to strengthen her scratchy, piercing tone in line with ’90s screamo titans like Orchid, a physically taxing undertaking that shows off her commitment to vocal growth.

Good emo music makes you feel their feelings; great emo music makes you see the world through their eyes. MacDonald’s lyrics render images like chewing on bread that’s turned to flesh, peeling a drunk driver off the asphalt like roadkill, feeding nickels and dimes to ducks in a pond. Even the song titles themselves invoke art film horror in the style of Jeff Mangum, be it pupils morphing into lily pads or a meadow comprised of stretched skin. Her penchant for inverted imagery often returns to the idea of god cowering from humans, and the extent to which pleasure has been drained from monumental events. “An all-knowing god doesn’t know what it’s like to not know anything at all,” she brags at one point. In “Yes! Yes! A Thousand Times Yes!” a minister grants the newlyweds their first kiss, but instead, they stare at each other awkwardly and drive home in separate cars.

Much of The Whaler oscillates between sounding repulsed and disillusioned. Several band members went from being proud Floridians hellbent on rehabbing their state’s reputation to frustrated former residents driven away by anti-trans legislation. When the daily give-and-take starts to feel like a losing bet, it’s hard not to grow cynical and view politicized hatred or mass violence as an inevitable pattern. During “Lily Pad Pupils,” MacDonald identifies with a hangman bringing flowers to the execution, or the whaler watching belugas wash up at her feet. As the song transitions from country emo twang to unnerving post-hardcore in an impressively discreet way, she lets out a scream that quivers with disgust and guilt: “Earn your urn!” How twisted to be forced into a harmful occupation simply by the regional and class boundaries fencing you in. Is a job just a job if it’s the only one available?

The Whaler is intended to make you feel unsteady, from MacDonald’s own spiraling to America’s great unraveling and the blind eye we turn to it. “You’re your own tapeworm,” she later screams, bile burning her throat, as if to question the very idea of nourishment. It’s arguably her most succinct metaphor for our new normal. On The Whaler, Home Is Where stick a finger in their wounds as a bonding mechanism, a gross display that they know how you feel. They’re grabbing a camcorder, sailing into the eye of the storm where the uncertainty and destructive winds come to a brief standstill, and marveling at how their tiny speck of a self is still existing at all. “I’m trying to show you,” MacDonald sings at one point, before amending the phrase: “I’m trying.”