I suppose it was inevitable that someone as self-critical as Jeff Rosenstock of Bomb the Music Industry! would title a solo album I Look Like Shit. Fans of BTMI will notice that the album has a lot in common with his band's releases in both song structure and subject matter. Songs tend to start softly, then gradually build to soaring climaxes, often alternating between quiet and loud. Lyrically, Rosenstock explores such familiar BTMI topics as strained relationships/friendships, bad living conditions, and weary nostalgia. He writes from the perspective of someone restless in the present, mournful about the past, and worried about the future, always longing for more.
The album isn't just BTMI songs under another name, though. A few things make them different. One is the distinctive sounds weaved into the fabric of each song. "80's through the 50's" has some of my favorites. It sets a nostalgic tone with some gentle guitar playing, then goes totally retro with atmospheric doo-wop piano. In other songs, sonically powerful verses gain heft and character from such details as well-placed falsetto, "woos" and "oohs," backing vocals chanting "roaches," whistling, horns, bells and dynamic keyboards. This is all supplemental to Rosenstock's signature tremendously catchy hooks.
The lyrics are different too, feeling more dark and intimate (as is often the case when a band's lead singer goes solo). Their detail keeps the album fascinating and unpredictable, even as songs cover similar thematic ground. Some feel a bit like very specific and philosophical diary entries. They effectively convey emotions and create vivid mental images through striking metaphors and evocative descriptions of people, places, objects, and situations.
Most of I Look Like Shit is more introspective and less socially conscious than BTMI's other albums, but the brutally honest song "Amen" has both qualities. In its stories of appalling behavior, Rosenstock observes the hypocrisy of supposedly devout people who are cruel to others and fair weather believers who only believe in God when they want to act heartless without punishment or guilt. Rosenstock also addresses his own guilt, confessing that sometimes he wishes he didn't have a moral compass and conscience keeping from doing whatever he wants, without shame or fear of spiritual consequences. His words resonate with dismay and nihilism.
Rosenstock lightens the mood by performing two covers that bring some refreshing optimism to an otherwise gloomy affair. Played as a mellow, ska-tinged jam, his rendition of Pulp's "Dishes" is a thoughtful charmer about counting your blessings. The other cover is of a mostly Japanese, occasionally English song called "I Don't Wanna Die" by Ging Nang Boyz. It opens with some deafening sound effects and is nonstop euphoric joy from there, with life-affirming lyrics about some of the wonderful things an alive person can do. It's as aggressively happy as the rest of the album is downbeat. At several points, "YES!" is shouted over and over again. Does music get any more positive than that?
"I Don't Wanna Die" gives the album a happy ending and nice symmetry, taking it from the deep despair of sadder songs to rapturously giddy heights. As a result, the album encapsulates the human condition that Homer Simpson once eloquently identified as "The dizzying highs, the terrifying lows, and the creamy middles!" of life. No matter how Rosenstock looks, there is definitely much to appreciate in how he sounds.