Album Review: Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM

[Polyvinyl/Specialist Subject; 2020]

Whether it was foretelling the inevitable election of Donald Trump in his 2016 record WORRY. or giving voice to the socio-political turmoil that defined the aforementioned’s first year in office on 2018’s POST-, Jeff Rosenstock‘s music has proven to be eerily prescient, time and time again. Amidst the pessimism, however, Rosenstock has managed to always coax a smile from even his most jaded listeners. On his latest record NO DREAM, the smirking 37-year-old punk unleashes another power-pop collection dead set on tearing open the festering wounds of the toiling United States.    

Despite always delivering within the confines of a distinguished but expected pop-punk formula, Rosenstock seems to have mastered the element of surprise. Released without warning, like POST-, NO DREAM arrives both at the wrong and most pressing time. With anthemic choruses that deserve to be performed and sung in unison within a concert setting, Rosenstock’s latest teases listeners with a reality that, right now, has been reduced to a mere ‘once upon a time’. Though social-distancing has dampened these tracks from fully fledging their wings within the intended atmosphere, NO DREAM channels the precise anger and weariness that has surfaced from what CNN’s Don Lemon recently deemed two deadly viruses killing Americans: COVID-19 and racism.

Mass bigotry continues to perpetuate the spread of both, and from the get-go Rosenstock shows no intention of refraining from explosive moments of anger. The aptly-titled NO DREAM begins by immediately unleashing fury through two quick-run cuts in “NO TIME” and “Nikes (Alt)”. The former knocks listeners upside their heads with a wake-up call of self-reflection and self-criticism, Rosenstock asking “Did you learn to make amends with your pile of flaming shit? / Gain the patience to deal with total idiots without losing your composure?,” but then points out that he is “basking in the fruits of my soft complicity” – and so are we by extension. “Nikes (Alt)” sees Rosenstock painting a bleak picture that we’re currently submerged in, frantically screaming “Looking down the barrel of a shitty future,” and “Looking for a dream that won’t morph to a nightmare.” And boy, what a nightmare it has become. 

Littered with nothing but ripping energy from top to bottom, the brisk intensity of the album’s first two tracks overflows into the tenacious “Scram!”, which proves to be inherently nihilistic: “Go kick rocks and die…Everything you say is a distraction / Well, I’m not listening to you.” A song about not reconciling your views for the sake of finding a middle ground, “Scram!” is the first moment on the record that proves the punk legend has moved from a headspace of hope and anarchy – expressed on WORRY. and POST-  – to one of fatigue and doubt.

This doubt is fully fathomed and even amplified into disbelief on the title track, where the American dream is dismantled and withered to its draconian core. Rosenstock laments as images of families ripped apart and lifeless bodies on the ground continue to materialize on television and cell phone screens, leaving us speechless and “trapped inside a void that zeroes out the screams.” As the track shifts from foggy disbelief and slow-burn guitars into a hardcore inferno of double kick drumming and vicious screams, listeners are left suspended in the despairing reality that “the only framework capitalism can thrive in is dystopia” and “the only endgame for capitalism is dystopia.”

While these broad strokes of anti-establishment rhetoric can come across as generic at times, like on the infectiously frenetic “f a m e,” where Rosenstock repeatedly announces “you will not control me,” these skin-deep reflections echo an artist sick and tired of being sick and tired. Though Rosenstock has grown weary from the days where it seemed he could take on fascism all by himself, he is still able to channel whatever he is feeling into some contagious and chaotic pop-punk. 

With all of the high-octane might fueling NO DREAM, there really is too much of a good thing going on. I know I wasn’t the only fan who thought they needed a record with complete unadulterated Big Jeff Energy, but as it turns out, listening to Rosenstock scream his guts out against searing riffs and plundering drums for the majority of 40 minutes can be a bit overwhelming. Simply put, a slight release of the gas pedal as experienced on his last two albums is much-needed, but doesn’t come until the gorgeous penultimate track “Honeymoon Ashtray”. Many of the tracks within NO DREAM run into each other without warning, causing them to seem inseparable from one another—especially upon the first few spins of the album. But of course, as is customary with any Rosenstock release, the initial indecipherability of NO DREAM soon dissipates, revealing a nuanced core with smoldering choruses as its power source.

With all of its festival-sized moments, NO DREAM gradually narrows its sweeping, connective feel into tight personal spaces. While I commented that NO DREAM can be rather skin-deep when it comes to commentary on society-at-large, it’s a little more complex and tender when the record veers to Rosenstock himself as the subject. Through every desire to watch it all crash and burn into rubble, Rosenstock also throws in instances that are disarmingly human. On the angst-filled “The Beauty of Breathing”, Rosenstock grumbles over empty advice routinely given to him for coping with his anxiety and depression, like useless meditation apps. It sometimes seems Rosenstock doesn’t really want answers, as he sings of wanting to wreck his car and smash his face into millions of pieces. As communicated throughout the entirety of NO DREAM, Rosenstock knows what’s wrong with society and himself, but the solutions are dwindling.

Even while Rosenstock sits in this hopelessness, listeners can still throw things around and crowd-kill their pets to his raucous choruses. Though his shouty, communal sound now operates as a fever dream reminder of days when sweaty bodies toppled on one another without the worry of infectious disease, his topical dissection of society on the mend has never felt more thrilling than it is now.