Youth Culture - I Hate How Normal I've Become (Cover Artwork)

Youth Culture

I Hate How Normal I've Become (2014)


What I love best about Mixtapes –– more than the stick–in–your–head melodies, more than the gruff/sweet interplay between Ryan and Maura's voices, more than the the clever lyrics –– is the underlying attitude. On songs like "Hope is for People" and "Even on the Worst Nights" Mixtapes are like a friend who's always in your corner –– a friend who says it's ok to feel what you're feeling, and reminds you that even if things are shitty right now, good things could be right around the corner. Mixtapes' music is life–affirming, but –– and this is no easy trick to pull off –– it never comes off as saccharine, let alone preachy.

So when I heard Ryan Rockwell had a side project of songs that were too dark for Mixtapes I wanted to hear it, but I was also a little scared to listen to it. The bio mentions the death of Rockwell's dad in a way that suggests the album is partly about processing his grief: heavy stuff. What if I didn't like it– The thing I hate most about reviewing is well–intentioned, but not very good, music by nice people. I'm a jerk if I dis it, but dishonest if I praise it.

Turns out I needn't have worried. I Hate How Normal I've Become opens quietly, with washes of backward guitar and densely layered vocals that blossom into a power chord/trumpet pairing that reminds me of Arcade Fire. The last minute of closer "Weather, Sports, Uncomfortable Silence" takes an unexpected detour into decidedly Slint–ish territory with keening harmonics and massed vocals that sound like they're across the room from the mic. But in between there's plenty of solid pop–punk that's not so different from Mixtapes; there are even some clean tenor harmony parts that I can imagine Maura singing if Mixtapes ever tackle these songs live.

More than grief specifically, what I get from the lyrics is discomfort with Ryan's discomfort with how and why he's getting high. But that's hardly new territory for Mixtapes; their very first records expressed ambivalence about alcohol and the pressure to party. If Mixtapes songs often sound like a friend trying to help you up, this one sounds a bit more like Ryan trying to help himself up (and I hope it works). If you're a fan of Mixtapes –– or smart, catchy, pop–punk in general –– this is well worth checking out.

There is one couplet that really shocked me. Ironically, "We Live (****)"'s chorus asserts, "I don't wanna talk about politics/I don't stand for much sometimes," but it also says "I don't think that Sandy Hook/went down but that's a closed book," which makes it sound like Rockwell might be on the other side of a line that defines artists I'm comfortable supporting. But God knows I'd hate to have every dumb thing I ever said or believed thrown in my face –– and good for him for wanting to keep that book closed.