Proper., “The Great American Novel”

For this Bartees Strange–produced third record, the emo trio explore how Black genius often goes ignored.

Proper., The Great American Novel

For this Bartees Strange–produced third record, the emo trio explore how Black genius often goes ignored.

Words: Mischa Pearlman

April 05, 2022

The Great American Novel

It’s always those who are best represented who complain loudest about the representation of others. Whether it’s about race, sexuality, gender, or something else, those who’ve never really had to face oppression tend to take the most offense when they’re not the center of attention. That’s true everywhere, but especially in alternative music. Which is what makes Proper.’s existence as an all-Black emo trio all the more important—especially within the context of the generally white sad-boy homogeneity of that scene. As such, their first two albums are imbued with and written from a viewpoint that’s depressingly underrepresented in emo, indie, punk, post-hardcore, and their many subgenres. Of course, the band’s race has no bearing on how good their music is. It just so happens that they’re also a phenomenally good band.

For this Bartees Strange–produced third record, the trio—vocalist Erik Garlington, bassist Natasha Johnson, and drummer Elijah Watson—have made a concept album about, as Garlington puts it, “how Black genius, specifically my own, goes ignored, is relentlessly contested, or just gets completely snuffed out before it can flourish.” That kind of undercurrent—of obstacles standing in their way as Black people—has always been in their music (the band’s name is even a reference to how white people assume they would talk). 

But their identity takes center stage here. Not only does Garlington confront those aforementioned issues, but also points out how different (and how much more difficult) life is for he and his bandmates than it is for most people in the scene. “Red, White and Blue” is a perfect example of that: a darkly urgent and insistent anthem that recasts life in the U.S. as being in an abusive relationship. Interestingly, it’s an intersectional song that’s more about wealth inequality than race, but still presses the point of the latter with powerful precision. 

Elsewhere, “Huerta” explores Garlington’s Mexican heritage, “McConnell” is a scathing ode to a reprehensible Republican politician, “Milk & Honey” questions the wisdom of having kids in this day and age over a Pedro the Lion–esque melody, and “Americana” is a quietly driven song that questions the life choices we all have to make as we march steadily toward our graves, but with the added trauma of doing so as a person of color. “If there’s anything this year taught me,” recites Garlington in a tone that echoes Cursive’s Tim Kasher, “my life is worth less than a haircut and a coffee.” It’s a powerful moment on an album comprised of powerful moments. And while it’s designed to be listened to in order to allow for its narrative to fully unravel, it’s an incredibly powerful, emotionally devastating, and important record regardless of how you choose to hear these songs.