Review: The Smith Street Band – ‘More Scared of You Than You are of Me’
Posted: by The Editor
I don’t know about you good folks, but Throw Me In The River was one of my favorite albums of 2014; an uproarious and heartfelt exhaustion of mental health problems, connection and disconnection, and time’s malleability, that continued to riff long after the cops shut down the party. At its turbulent center was Wil Wagner, whose gargled lucidity could carry an epic poem of emotion in a transitory vocal break. No longer a ‘Young Drunk’, Wagner was just as drunk on anxiety, loneliness, and the necessity of good friends as counterbalance; the pint of tap water at the after party. Throw Me In The River was nominally a proclamation of fatalism, a disguise concealing the upbeat grace-notes.
As an eager overanalyst, I derive more meaning from album titles than I should. It’s just a single word, or sequence of words, which may or may not convey import; a convolution which seemed resolved in Girls’ postmodern pastiche of naming their 2009 debut Album. Yet More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me is a summation, an assertion, and closure incarnate. We’ve already had one terrific break-up album this year in Ryan Adams’ resurgent Prisoner, but – inevitably – Wagner’s diarising is more feral, more consumptive, more resplendently vivid, more drunk.
‘Forrest’ jump starts in medias res, illustrating the emotional violence of the break-up as it approaches; for Yet More is chronologically sequenced, permitting Wagner to write his songs in a stream of immediacy as channeled in an authentic day-by-day document, all through until the heartening finale ‘Laughing – Or Pretending To Laugh’ designates his meeting someone new; an appendix of sorts, a post-credits sting. The turmoil simmers without boiling yet, Wagner’s refrain of “I want to kiss you on the mouth/A little too hard” already anticipating and condensing the Frankenstein’s Monster of intense hostility cohabiting with intense love. The devastating double-tap ‘Song For You’ and ‘Passiona’ underscores how a manipulative partner precipitates insecurity, an already open wound as a person who confesses to being mentally unwell – “And the realization shatters through me/That I’m the villain in this movie”. The thoughtfulness, and quiet triumph, of Wagner is his demonstration of romantic angst’s capacity for destabilizing every other facet of your life, and accentuating their defects. Whether that’s panic attacks on tour: the uncertainty of being a musician among white-collar friends: or the sagging regret of being ‘Young Once’. It infects everything, in the canyon of external interactions, and in the nooks of self-criticism. The visceral proximity of these catalogs is skin-shredding.
Though, as in Throw Me, Wagner extends a bouquet of hope, buoyed by that perennial anchor of good friends, and the primal virtue of sexual liberation when unshackled from a suffocating relationship. ‘Birthdays’ mosh pits with self-empowerment; “We are more than future housewives/More than the sum of our past lives,” while ‘Laughing’ articulates the unexpected tremor which accompanies the first post-breakup crush, the resurrection of excited feeling long thought extinct. ‘Shine’ is where the album, well, shines. Like a stake being removed from the heart, you realize with the radiance of sunlight that the worst, the lowest, is over; the competence to care is reignited. One of the best feel-good songs of the year, it’s a winning endorsement of clemency, compassion, and contentment. There are reverberations of catharsis, of obliging therapy, so gleefully indulged that you can’t help but be swept up in Wagner’s redemption.
You know what you’re getting musically with a Smith Street Band album – particularly one produced by Jeff Rosenstock – and that’s unanimously stellar songwriting conduced with anthemic riffs, generous kick-drums, and that harmonizing of melancholy and sanguinity that struts on the right side of Springsteen. They’re still a bar band sounding so much larger, but it’s tough to improve on marble foundations.
Also, can we allocate an individual paragraph highlighting how fucking gnarly it is that Jeff Rosenstock produced a Smith Street Band record which also features Laura Stevenson? Thanks.
Drunkenness is a shape-shifting cognitive state where rationality and effective morality are distorted; figuring the exhilarating precarity of youth, the overriding intimacies and entanglement of love, the dreadful and illuminating homogeneity of mortality. More Scared is soberly empathetic and richly realized in its exploration of emotional violence, antagonistic romance, and their terrible transactions with mental illness; and really quite brilliant as a punk take. Sometimes sobriety is transcendent too.