Excuse My Efforts for Today: Preoccupations Is the Proper Soundtrack for America Right Now
We don’t deserve it.
Throughout the past few weeks or so, while sitting in numbing LA traffic, I’ve heard the same voice repeating itself endlessly.
“Everybody’s fallen by the wayside, nowhere near to finding better ways to be.”
Anxiety. Yeah, man, I feel that much. The whole lead up to this past Tuesday has played out like some weird fever dream—a kind of grim awareness that became less ignorable and more existentially draining as it got closer to the inevitable.
“Another circumstance to blame.”
And now that it’s come and gone, the results have taken a while to sink in. Yes, The-goddamn-Apprentice, the “birther” that all us non-racists laughed at in 2012, the pussy grabber who this year had us convinced he had irreparably damaged any chances in public office (as well as the presidential election process) with a stream of seemingly unending vileness is now going to be The Most Important Man In The World. Last Wednesday we woke up to a Philip K. Dick–esque living nightmare that a year ago I would have said made for some great satire. Much has been made as to the true ramifications of what a Trump presidency might entail—attempts to differentiate between the foreseeable and the exaggerated—but there’s a thousand signs pointing to the fact this is definitely not OK.
“Get the hell out of the street.”
Preoccupations—the source of that booming, apocalyptic voice above—draws upon the bleak language that inhabits a lot of late ’70s and early ’80s rock music from England, which, while not all politically explicit, tends to portray a reality that is cold, violent, or flat out apocalyptic. Historically this is taken as a direct response to Thatcherism and the greater proliferation of conservatism worldwide—a reaction against an environment growing more authoritarian and oppressive.
In this tradition, Preoccupations engages a violent, uncertain future with all the romanticism of a tactical strike. The lyrics paint pictures in broad strokes, using clinical and detached phrases describing “mercenary impulsions” or “orchestrated controversy.” External conflicts are vague battles of punishment and submission, struggles between technology and humanity, the inevitable entropy of any organized system. Internal struggles are framed in a panoptic view of the fraying population at whole; the degradations suffered by someone living “in a hollow shell” only serve as an inset of the greater map of decay that the band is keen on graphing. The songs speak in “we” and “us”—a chorus providing acute commentary of all the disorder going on around them, not an optimistic thought in sight.
There’s no way around it: the world in which Preoccupations dwell, while dystopian and distant at first, is inseparable from our own.
So as I listened to these lurid descriptions of chaos while driving around doing my dumb errands in my dumb car, I thought, “Well, yeah, this sounds a little far-fetched.” But hearing these lyrics as some sort of morbid escapism was akin to all the mental blocking I had to do for this election cycle not to depress the ever-loving shit out of me, and that was long before the dreaded outcome became clear. I had the blinders on just like any of the countless pundits and commentators who have now retroactively come out to admit how grossly wrong they were in judging this one, not willing to dip into the troth of poisonous Facebook discourse that constituted the reality of the political zeitgeist, unwilling to understand the idea that just because there is a world of misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric that you can choose to simply ignore doesn’t change the fact that half the country eats it up.
Now as I see the words “President Trump” together not as some hypothetical disaster scenario but an actual and undeniable fact, these songs take on a painful new relevance. Descriptions of “intolerant and overheating” masses—what was so preposterous about that? When Matt Flegel sings of “ill intention gathering momentum” in a voice that channels a post-punk Mark Lanegan, the parallels to the political and cultural landscape are so blindingly obvious that, shit, do I really have to go over them? The violent breakdown of discourse and reason. Civil unrest against hopeless oppression. There’s no way around it: the world in which Preoccupations dwell, while dystopian and distant at first, is inseparable from our own.
“The translation of sound is the same.”
Preoccupations are not the only ones to deal in cynicism. There are plenty of politicized punk bands out there and there are sure to be a lot more. There are also plenty of groups whose material, intentionally or not, can also be applied as a wry commentary on the mess of things right now.
Yet Preoccupations’ album doesn’t just read like the present—it sounds like it, too. Sonically, the band’s DNA can be traced back to titans of ’80s melancholia such as The Cure or Echo & The Bunnymen, with a healthy dose of influence from pricklier underground acts like This Heat. That said, this is no mere retread or revival. These are jumping-off points for a twenty-first century type of rock and roll—a genre that has seen its influence in modern pop diminish and that exists in limbo between its past glories and the electronic-informed acts that currently fill arenas.
On “Anxiety,” a synthesized bass line locks step with marching drums as Flegel starts to list a claustrophobic array of apprehensions. The effect is ominous and imposing. The drums are massive, full of echo and evoking monolithic imagery: Towering structures. Giant halls. Empty streets. Truly yuge stuff. Cold synths punctuate the spaces in a brittle guitar assault. “Memory” forges a melodic line out of what sounds like a mechanical lift. The band alternates between artificial and organic textures at a time where many bands are content to not do much more than play dress up with sounds from any decade that doesn’t end with 00.
“Fever,” the last and perhaps best song on album full of great songs, finds Flegel offering the faintest light at the end of the tunnel. Amidst a gorgeous tapestry of haunting synths and fuzzy guitar, the record fades out on repeated refrain:
“You’re not scared, you’re not scared. Carry your fever away from here.”
Scared? Shit, I’m terrified. We’re going to need a lot more than courage alone to last these next four years. Preoccupations might be an album of hyperbole, but just don’t say they never told you so. FL
Read our feature on Preoccupations.