ALBUM REVIEW: Jeff Rosenstock – ‘HELLMODE’

Artwork for Jeff Rosenstock’s ‘HELLMODE’

Jeff Rosenstock may be a mouthpiece for all the DIY music makers, the strugglers, and the ska lovers, but his varied scene-juggling goes far beyond that. In his pursuit to reclaim the ‘best of’ mainstream success of the Jerry Finn ‘90s pop-punk era, it feels like a difficult attempt to reclaim fun again, if we ever can in the jarring HELLMODE of our modern society. It’s no different, if not worse, than a staggering virus that should’ve made us a little more caring.

Rosenstock always managed to point fingers at disappointing powers that be, or empower the disillusioned to find self-fulfilment or strength in community. He’s as much of a healing voice as he is a costumeless Aquabat; your cooler older brother showing you why third-wave ska definitely has its place outside marching band camps. His masterful NO DREAM and its subsequent horn section reimagining were as much gutsy, sardonic social commentary as they were hilarious romp. Released in 2020, a lot has happened since. 2023 has seen the slurry of stream-of-consciousness ‘COVID living’ releases evolve into our views from the other side. Likewise, Rosenstock moulds his sound palette around a self-examination of his own actions and the continued fucking state of everything else.

That cavalcade of bonkers nonsense is all there to see and hear in opener WILL U STILL U, with a bassline hurtling along a crash course soon to be joined by vibrant beachy chords that hop off the surfboard onto the skate deck. There are black-metal blasts and tremolos (no doubt influenced by close collaborator Jack Shirley) and spirited gang vocals. Rosenstock can adopt cheapo drum machines and deliver tongue twisters so fast his nifty guitar can barely keep up (HEAD), or channel REM open-string jangle-pop and Ramones chord cadences in one fell swoop (I WANNA BE WRONG). Everything gets thrown onto wax and works bafflingly well.

While some fans saw lead single LIKED U BETTER as a twee pop song, it offers such a hopeful glow amongst more of the levelling chaos that precedes it. Even the seemingly straightforward alt-rock FUTURE IS DUMB features peppery tight snares, and party-piece woah-ohs to finish. Then again, it’s mostly melancholy, after the sneering “I’ve got to deal with this another fucking year!” line. Sneering further, Rosenstock pokes fun at his strange ascent into a critical darling; he’ll write then trash songs at will on LIFE ADMIN, beginning with the pop-punk trope of leaving your crappy hometown, then flipping it to “fuck off to the desert” because he has more money now. Why not?

But that darkly humorous territory has always suited Rosenstock’s observations, much like his own success being long in the making but arriving when the world is in clear disarray. In noting his own forms of hypocrisy, he shines a light onto everyone else’s—the moral dilemma of being able to fly polluting planes all around the place, taking all-expenses-paid trips while others barely see a dollar. There’s a vindictive culture war all having as much a damning environmental effect, all borne from “the fear that you were wrong about something” (GRAVEYARD SONG). The album cover’s cartoonishness foils the riot police also present on the sleeve, all an extension of the smart songwriting trying to make light of the currently burning bin fire, which will luckily just be temporary.

As the album starts, Rosenstock doesn’t want to feel like he’s fucking it up for everyone, and he ends it conscientiously wanting “the universe to grow for you”. His own solutions of stopping himself from freaking out feel universal in this era’s “redundancy of your POV / Infinite serotonin starving fever dream.” We need to overcome self-doubt, discuss what the hell is bothering us, and accept that the world sucks and we need to do something about it. Whatever your thoughts on the madness, HELLMODE will resonate with them, humour them, and maybe even make you have your own private punk show about them.

For fans of: Joyce Manor, PUP, Rancid

‘HELLMODE’ by Jeff Rosenstock is released on 1st September on Specialist Subject Records.

Words by Elliot Burr

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