[Epitaph; 2021]

Stevie Knipe knows a thing or two about asserting control. In late 2019, the New York-based artist blew the lid off an alleged breach of contract at the Carolinas-based label they were then signed to. Tiny Engines had released their project Adult Mom’s first two albums – 2015’s Momentary Lapse of Happily and 2017’s Soft Spots, a pair of records that charted considerable artistic growth – before going dark amid furore. This happened as Knipe was at work on their third album – we all know what happened a few months later.

Driver, therefore, has been a while in coming, for a variety of reasons. Earlier this year, Knipe announced that Adult Mom had signed to Epitaph, and what began as a solo project and later incorporated lead guitarist Allegra Eidinger and drummer Olivia Battell – rounded out by bassist and co-producer Kyle Pulley of Thin Lips on this album – has certainly gone places, fleshing out its sound as needed. The sparse introduction of album opener “Passenger” suggest little has changed, but it soon becomes apparent that the opposite is true as the full band comes crashing in, aided by sighing slide guitar that provides an appropriately wistful backdrop to the song’s painful reminiscences: “I was a passenger in your car / And now I’m a ghost who won’t answer a call.”

The idea of isolation crops up frequently. Knipe weighs up its pros and cons on the striking “Sober”, as they retreat into themselves in the aftermath of a break-up – by all means a natural instinct. “The only thing I’ve done this month is drink beer and masturbate / And ignore phone calls from you / What else am I supposed to do?” they lament, their observations as poignant as they are playful. There’s humour to be found throughout the record – sometimes overt and sometimes hidden between the lines, in wry asides, or tucked away in corners. This is evidenced by the brutal honesty of “Breathing”, which finds Knipe retreating under bed covers and getting their communication from an overdue hospital bill they can’t afford to pay.

Knipe was involved in a car accident that left them with a neck injury (documented on closing track “Frost”) and laid the foundations for their latest offering’s lyrical narrative, and there’s no denying that this was a painful record to make, in both an emotional and physical sense. “Berlin” recounts a friendship flaming out, its recollection of formative memories contrasting sharply with the finality of knowing it’s at an end; that raw, immediate aftermath is captured in the song’s deceptively bubbly chorus: “Sit in the car, parked in the dark, hearing rain drop on the roof.” “Regret It”, meanwhile, is built around an acoustic framework that calls back to Knipe’s previous material and thrives off a sense of urgency that swells to a marvellous emotional peak as they dive deep into heartache but refuse to wallow. “Dancing” zooms in on the crash itself, finding Knipe dancing to the song they crashed their car to, exploring the trauma attached to such an event while also revelling in coming to terms with it.

Clocking in at a hair over half an hour in length, Driver is similarly brief in nature as the albums which preceded it, but it stands apart from Adult Mom’s first two records in that it’s a more polished, bigger and brighter collection of songs, in spite of how its lyrical content may seem – besides, it’s just as much about self-acceptance and moving on as it is about recounting the setbacks that brought Knipe to this point. They open the album by depicting themselves as a ghost who won’t answer calls, and end it on “Frost” by resolving to step back out into the world. “I might be too good at closing myself off / No one can let me out but myself” they admit in the album’s closing moments, and it’s a sentiment that lingers – they’re ready to take on the world on their own terms, and are firmly in the driver’s seat.

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