Exercise Your Demons
No, it’s not a mistake. The title of Cliffdiver’s first proper album isn’t due to the Tulsa seven-piece not knowing how to spell “exorcize.” Rather, it’s a clever pun designed to highlight the fact that while none of us can really ever be free of the things that plague us as human beings—mental health issues, depression, heartbreak, existential dread, et al—we can learn to co-exist with them. That’s the conceit at the heart of this record: If we express feelings instead of keeping them bottled up, if we practice empathy to better understand ourselves as well as others, if we confront the things that haunt us instead of avoiding them, we can get them more under control. But it’s a constant process. Exercise, in other words. To quote the baboon at the end of season two of Bojack Horseman: “It gets easier. Every day, it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part.”
These nine songs are, in a way, the manifestation of that advice. The band’s two singers, Joey Duffy and Briana Wright, have both survived suicide attempts, and have both come to realize that, in fact, there is light at the end of the tunnel. That sense of wild abandon and sheer joy at being alive bursts through the music on this record, whether in the jubilant energy of opener “New Vegas Bomb,” the sad-yet-defiant, minor-chord euphoria of “Who Let the Hawgs Out?,” or the blistering emo/pop-punk/hardcore-punk hybrid of “Death Is a Wedding (With Eternity).” It’s actually almost pointless to try to define exactly the kind of music Cliffdiver make, because it changes song to song—and even within songs.
In fact, Exercise is almost like a masterclass in all the different phases of emo, incorporating aspects of its initial hardcore roots, its noodly Midwest incarnation, as well as the more pop-punky version that Fall Out Boy and their ilk took to the mainstream. But it’s all infused with Cliffdiver’s own idiosyncratic identity. Just listen to the way “Frankie Muniz Don’t Smoke No Mids” accelerates in a rush of frenetic guitars, only to be slowed—twice—by a sax part that recalls 1980s pop at its most 1980s, or how the soaring chorus of “I Left My Heart at Lemon Lake” would, in a different universe, be the biggest pop hit of the decade.
While the sonics veer sharply from song to song, it’s brought and held together by the emotional turbulence at its center—an abject sadness that’s captured in the downtrodden, gentle fragility of “We Saw the Same Sunset” but which graduates to a newfound sense of purpose and wonder that’s woven into the musical skeleton of closer “IKEA Strikes Back.” From beginning to end, the album essentially details a dark night of the soul and works its way through suicidal ideation to an unexpected sense of happiness, calmness, belonging. It all serves as a rush of warm blood to the head, to the heart, to the soul that nourishes and inspires in a way that not enough music does. So go. Take the band’s advice. Exercise your demons and remember, if you do, that it does get easier. Listening to this album every day would be a great way to remind yourself of that.