Punk veteran Jeff Rosenstock released his 5th studio album this year, Hellmode. Surprise released August 31st, a day earlier than the announced drop, it has earned well deserved praise from critics, even landing #1 album of the year for Anthony Fantano. While the album title may lead you to expect crunchy lyrics and epic, messy instrumentation similar to that of his 2nd studio album Worry, the themes of the album find itself on the track “Healmode.” It largely deals with Rosenstock coming to terms with mental illness, and how he wants to move forward in his life regarding it. Rosenstock is a multi instrumentalist from Long Island, New York, known for his prior bands The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry!. His solo project launched in 2012 with a debut mixtape, just after Bomb the Music Industry’s breakup. Since then, his solo project has found success within punk, ska, and power pop. He has also composed music for Cartoon Network’s Craig of the Creek.
Rosenstock has established himself in the DIY and punk scene as a consistent contributor and influencer of the sound. Hellmode tackles dealing with a chronic issue, whether it is mental health, burnout, or a political issue. The top half of the record jumps between the chaos in his mind and losing hope, and you begin to feel that during “HEAD,” a fast-faced energized track that practically leaves you out of breath trying to keep up with his words. The listener is suddenly thrown into Rosenstock’s mind and the hell that ensues, as he is forced to confront his mental illness face to face, as if it was an old friend he’s left behind. There is a tonal shift in “LIKED YOU BETTER,” the first single off the record, that helps segue from the sprint that is “HEAD” into Rosenstock's true desires amidst the chaos. He calls out a sense of hopelessness and frustration with his desensitization, and realizes that he needs to make the peaceful life he wants to live.
As the listener exits Rosenstock’s chaos, “SOFT LIVING” shifts the record towards his personal situation. Having moved to California at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he references forest fires, police brutality, and an overall loss of hope. Fantano describes this track as Weezer-esque, finding similarities between the messy layers of fuzz guitar and the imperfection of the production found on Pinkerton. Rosenstock utilizes acoustic guitars for his quiet reflections and hopelessness, and electric guitars for his frantic anxiety. The bottom half of the album provides a tonal and lyrical shift, as Rosenstock finds himself in a place of privilege due to his success, but laments about his part in the systems he sings about destroying. “HEALMODE,” which ironically seems to be the title track, places you in his shoes on a rainy California day. It is a soft, acoustic tune of clarity, and comfortably transitions the record to more mellow tunes. The tension builds towards the end of the album as Rosenstock calls out his specific frustrations with those who profit from chaos and our desensitization of mass shootings, racial injustice, and climate change. He wants to get better but the world seems to be getting worse. “3 SUMMERS” serves as Rosenstock’s expected, epic closer to the record, delivering anthemic lyrics and gang vocals, catchy guitar leads, and upbeat, power-pop drums.
He is unsure how to feel about his celebrity status, and wonders if he could ever reenter the real world. He makes a decision for himself to get everything out so that he can move on, repeating “you can’t help me anymore,” as if he is telling a friend that he must do the remainder of the work on his own. Rosenstock’s tone of voice and vulnerability ignites the same energy from the listener, as they’re invited to join him on this desire for self improvement. The release deserves the praise it has received and a spot in albums of the year. The punk veteran tackles relevant issues pertaining to this year and reinvents within his sound while maintaining his audience’s attention, rivaling his prior critically acclaimed records such as Worry! and We Cool?. As an artist who finds himself older than his peers in the genre, Rosenstock asks the listener if it’s possible to leave your troubles behind you in pursuit of a more peaceful life, especially in the world we live in today. Hellmode is a gritty take at self reinvention when the world is at odds with you.
- Rachel Mitchell