Ratboys, “The Window”

The Chicago indie-pop group feel it all on their fifth album, with moments of elation beautifully contrasting with those of sorrow.

Ratboys, The Window

The Chicago indie-pop group feel it all on their fifth album, with moments of elation beautifully contrasting with those of sorrow.

Words: Annie Parnell

August 24, 2023

The Window

Ratboys have been together for more than a decade, a story that began in 2010 when frontwoman Julia Steiner and guitarist Dave Sagan met at Notre Dame freshman orientation and, soon after, recorded a cover of “Spiderweb” by the Champaign-Urbana slacker-rock project Easter. Since then, their band has evolved into a full-time four-piece lineup, and their marriage of noisy indie rock and alt-country has shifted and evolved. Their new album The Window is another stage in that evolution. It’s their first to be recorded collaboratively from start to finish, and the new coming-together lends it a triumphant, expansive sound.

Steiner has described the first inklings of The Window as “seeds” that she brought to Sagan, bassist Sean Neumann, and drummer Marcus Noccio to nurture—a fitting metaphor for a band who’ve long been preoccupied with growth. Throughout The Window, those seeds bloom into new and fascinating flowers. A wall of fuzz on opener “Making Noise for the Ones You Love” backs up the angry-yet-playful refrain, “I’m not gonna talk about that,” while a fiddle laces through the sunny heartland-indie of “Morning Zoo.” In the tradition of Wilco’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” “Black Earth, WI” spins out into a nine-minute jam that revels in the complexities of kinship: “How’d I ever know you quite like I was told to?”

Ratboys feel it all on The Window, and the album’s moments of elation are beautifully contrasted with those of sorrow. “Making Noise” and “No Way” mourn loves that refuse to fade, but the title track grieves a different kind of loss: the passing of Steiner’s grandmother, whose husband said goodbye to her through the window of her nursing home. With many lyrics directly pulled from their last conversation, it’s a heart-wrenching reminder of the inevitable end for relationships that don’t break up, building into a celebration of the time we get to share.

These themes of time and mortality are frequent touchstones for Ratboys. In 2017, their album GN pondered lost pets and the motion of the planets, while 2020’s Printer’s Devil was demoed at Steiner’s childhood home in Louisville after it was put on the market. On The Window, the previous anxieties around these subjects fade away, replaced here by assuredness. Like 2021’s “Go Outside,” “It’s Alive!” takes comfort in nature, only in a way that’s celebratory rather than aspirational. Instead of needing an escape, the central epiphany happens right at home. 

On album closer “Bad Reaction,” Steiner takes these lessons and distills them into a meditation on past and present selves. The song journeys through long drives and graveyards, bad habits and bad influences, but it lands on a single, urgent question: “What’s the one thing you love?” In a way, that question is the beating heart of The Window; its answer the thesis which the album ultimately lands on: Our pain might inform how we become who we are, but it’s curiosity and connection that carry us through.