Every critical appraisal of The Garden, at one point or another, seems obligated to bring up both how weird and off-piste they want to be, and how little that really matters. It might be interesting to see how this sort of cavalier musical construction pans out, with bashed-out punk leaning on jungle and drum ‘n’ bass beats and topped off by smatterings of noise and creaking indie-rock, but with all the window dressing removed, The Garden are a pretty straightforward punk duo that don’t necessarily need everything they throw on top. It’s been where their material has regularly faltered, with ideas that struggle to coalesce and a scattershot approach to composition that, even under intense scrutiny, doesn’t have much in the way of a cogent explanation. It goes without saying that, despite compelling moments, The Garden are yet to produce a full album that really wows, even under the banner of an Epitaph co-sign that, in the context of this band’s output, feels like it means very little.
But while there’s always been an element of The Garden themselves holding fast against a critical establishment and playing up to outlandish expectations that become something of a calling card for them, there’s something of an unpleasantness radiating from Kiss My Super Bowl Ring, where obnoxiousness tinted with a knowing wink has been pushed down the path of outright contempt and embracing what that stands for. It doesn’t help that The Garden remain as wildly inconsistent as ever, but even that’s now coloured by what feels like a deliberate pivot to artlessness and anti-music that the duo don’t have the means or knowledge to properly pull off. The way that all rounds out is with the sort of blown-out sonic overwhelm that wants to be avant-garde, but just ends up as annoying, and for an act who’ve struggled to hold their own in terms of appeal for the bulk of their lifetime, spitting in the face of rectification with more vitriol than ever before is not the way to move forward.
It’s the sort of decision that plants the narrative of The Garden thinking they’re capable of a lot more than they’re willing to put down, and while there’s a certain academic fascination in seeing how they’ve attempted to make all of these pieces fit together (or if they even do that in the first place), it’s not like the end product is positively affected by any of it. Largely, it’s weirdness in service of nothing but itself, where coating what would otherwise be a fairly rote but acceptable collection of slacker-punk songs in whatever musical jetsam they can get their hands on is more of a worthy creative decision than actually honing what’s at the core to any considerable degree. Every now and then, there’ll be a glimpse of real inspiration that could be expanded out and moulded into something cool, like the juddering synth-punk buzz of The King Of Cutting Corners or the bug-eyed ferocity of Sneaky Devil and Hit Eject in their fashioning of Prodigy-esque jungle beats into a newer volatile context, but The Garden bounce between their own shards of ideas so quickly that there’s no time reserved to consider whatever they land on. There’s no reason for the mumbling indie-rock of Clench To Stay Awake to smash itself open for a passage of abrasive screamo, and when it’s there as an inexplicable change of pace and little else, there’s no reason to become invested. There’s no set definition to Kiss My Super Bowl Ring that can be reliably brought out of it, where creativity curtails right back on itself into malformed pileups that seldom have the inspiration hewn from them.
And what’s equally frustrating is it feels like The Garden know that, and leaning into it as regularly as they do means that this album’s difficulty to get along with curdles into full-on dislikability. After all, The Garden have regularly been of the mindset of not caring who likes them and who doesn’t, and when there’s such a frontal acknowledgement of that with the title track itself and the conscious decision to have that as the title track, but a closing note like Please, Fuck Off is less confrontational and more of a deliberate jab at anyone in earshot regardless of what they think, especially with the fetid snark that drips from a line like “Congratulations, you made it to the end of the song”. It’s really only feeding the mindset to be bringing it up, but it feels necessary when, in further dissections of nihilism and mental instability that populate the rest of the album, The Garden aren’t doing anything all that special enough to earn the right to be as dismissive as they are. There’s a strange amount of ego below the surface for what’s ostensibly a punk album, and the fact that The Garden honestly aren’t good enough at what they do to warrant putting that on show means that everything just winds up as an ugly mess.
Of course, there’ll be some for whom that’s an enticing proposition, but it’s worth questioning why, especially when on a purely instrumental level, Kiss My Super Bowl Ring isn’t as much of a breathless thrill ride as it is a floundering mass of quarter-ideas where connective tissue has been surgically removed at every possible turn. It’s not even engrossingly discordant like some experimental music can be; it’s just awkward for no discernible reason, with the odd moment that might feel like a total fluke when viewed with even a modicum of critical forethought. And when that’s not a new quality for The Garden – and it’s further compounded by a severe dearth of approachability on all fronts – it’s worth wondering who this album is even for, and what the point of something like this is. That’s never a question anyone wants to have when discussing art of any kind, but when an album is this directionless, self-serving and pleased with itself all at the same time, staying around just feels like more hassle than it’s worth.
For fans of: The Death Set, Show Me The Body, Cerebral Ballzy
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Kiss My Super Bowl Ring’ by The Garden is released on 13th March on Epitaph Records.