Jeff Rosenstock doesn’t want your money. In the 2000s, as the mastermind of Bomb the Music Industry!, he turned down record label offers, gave away his music for free, and spraypainted his fans’ shirts instead of selling merch at shows. With an ethos equally indebted to the militant anti-consumerism of Fugazi and the fraternity of Less Than Jake, the jack-of-all-trades has long believed DIY is the only answer. “Not only do I think it’s sustainable, I can’t imagine how else to do it,” Rosenstock said before the band’s hiatus. This spirit has remained consistent during his solo career, but as the Emmy-nominated musician stared down 40, he stopped refusing financial assistance and accepted a fancy studio session to record HELLMODE, his fifth solo album, at the behest of Polyvinyl.
Inspired by System of a Down’s recording sessions for Toxicity, Rosenstock and go-to producer Jack Shirley booked a week at EastWest Studios, a space more famously known for Whitney Houston and Pet Sounds. While the luxe setting could have presented an ethical compromise, Rosenstock inhabits it on his own terms. Just as he’s begun playing 2016’s “Festival Song” at major festivals, he isn’t sanctimonious enough to deny partaking in the capitalist machine he criticizes in his songs, especially if it involves pushing the limits of how his art can evolve. Rosenstock and Shirley avoid the pitfalls that major studio sessions can tempt, like using every instrument within reach or cranking the production beyond recognition. Instead, he went big on HELLMODE by going smaller. It’s the prettiest album he’s ever made, but it still gets you riled up.
That level-up is most audible in HELLMODE’s punk-rock tracks, which offer a dialed-in but not dialed-back tone. “LIKED U BETTER” takes a bite out of Rosenstock’s bread and butter: simple chords strummed aggressively, a bumpy beat, a shout to intro the guitar solo. “DOUBT” takes another classic Rosenstock route: an ambling first half that gives way to a double-time rhythm and gang vocals. Instead of sounding scuzzy like previous albums We Cool? or WORRY., he incorporates textural space. Even the nods to ska—jubilant “oi oi oi” hollers and shimmering trombone by SKA DREAM star Jer Hunter—are tempered. Nowhere is this clearer, or more fun, than “FUTURE IS DUMB,” where Rosenstock commits to ferocious screaming. With every repetition of “The world doesn’t owe you,” his voice grows hoarser—and when the song reaches its euphoric breakdown, he kicks into overdrive for one last wail.
HELLMODE turns the volume knob down halfway for its remaining tracks, opting for a contemplative, refined mood that emphasizes the lyrics. He sings about self-acceptance by way of keeping himself in check, calling out his own hypocrisy, privilege, and paranoia: “Does the weight I’ll carry from here on out even compare to the damage that I’ve caused? No!” His attention to detail on the acoustic “HEALMODE” is particularly moving, as he revels in a newfound appreciation of rain after relocating to Los Angeles from his longtime Brooklyn shoebox. He ponders with a humble romanticism akin to Paul Baribeau: Where do neighborhood coyotes take cover? How do pine needles stick to the car?
In downshifting from punk-rock fervor to indie rock respite, Rosenstock nods to unlikely peers in the genre. Two separate Built to Spill-esque guitar solos pierce through “GRAVEYARD SONG” with elongated whole notes. The Hold Steady’s classic rock-tinted synths and guitar uphold “I WANNA BE WRONG.” There’s even the distinct eras of Weezer between the Blue Album and Green Album adulation on “LIFE ADMIN” and “SOFT LIVING,” respectively. Though they warrant these comparisons, the songs still boast the trademarks of Rosenstock’s songwriting: scratchy sing-yells, x0.5-speed tempos, a buzzing sense of urgency. Listen closely to decipher old Bomb the Music Industry! stylings that have matured through the pristine lens of HELLMODE, like the glockenspiel-dotted refrain of “WILL U STILL U” echoing “Vocal Coach,” or the meter derailment of “Bike Test 1 2 3” spinning out of control on “HEAD.” Even when he careens towards indie rock, it’s with the inextinguishable spirit of a DIY punk stalwart.
Although HELLMODE is more polished than his previous solo albums, Rosenstock is still the same ripped jorts-wearing workaholic laughing his way through the stress. “If I can’t help myself from freaking out, how am I gonna live?” he sings on seven-minute-long closer “3 SUMMERS.” He doesn’t have the answer, but he’s got the next best thing: a cohort of friends—Laura Stevenson, PUP, Chris Farren—supporting him and singing along. Even now, with Spotify and Bandcamp allowing fans to stream his music for nothing, Rosenstock still uploads his albums for free download on his digital label Quote Unquote Records to pay that generosity forward. A day before its scheduled release, HELLMODE appeared there, the most expensive album of his career one click away from being yours forever to spread wherever you please. For all the doubt and unpredictability in his songs, there’s comfort in knowing some things never change.
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