Love in the Time of E-Mail
Polyvinyl/Big Scary Monsters, 2018
Published at Apathy & Exhaustion
Slackaholic Jeff Rosenstock is back with yet another album, inspiringly justifying his generally dishevelled look. This time it’s Love in the Time of E-Mail, a collaboration with Fake Problems singer Chris Farren, under the awkward Antarctigo Vespucci name. Apparently it’s a bad joke based on Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian guy who first presented evidence that the Americas were not in fact East Asia, and probably expected to remain a lot more famous for it. Imagining themselves as the know-it-alls of Antarctica, Rosenstock and Farren have made a wintery power pop album (their second together) that looks for warmth and fun in the snow. Following the eye-blinking, post-election emergence vibe of January’s POST-, this time Jeff is bundling up again, and having the audacity to think he might actually make it through the coming dark months unscathed.
I know nothing about Chris Farren and Florida’s Fake Problems beyond what I’ve researched for this review. But his position as the primary singer for Antarctigo Vespucci gives you an idea of the kind of sheen that’s covering this project. He’s similar in turn to pop-rockers like Nate Ruess of The Format/fun., A.C. Newman of The New Pornographers, and Chris Conley of Saves The Day (with just slightly more positive results than this A&E review of their latest album 9). Farren’s voice is much better suited to this style, with Rosenstock’s singing appeal being more that of the off-kilter unconventional. The keyboards, xylophone, guitars and other twinkles suggest cold imagery at a safe distance, and are underscored with just enough punk and distortion to make it all feel grounded. Maybe this holiday season you’ll spend some quality time with the people you care about, nobody will fall out, and you’ll feel some of life’s fleeting romance. After months of delaying this piece to research the evils of a company that puts a happy face over unfathomable malice, it sounds fantastically positive, despite featuring some forlorn love lyrics. You’ll want to sing along immediately despite not having a clue what the words are.
Alongside all this twee goodness, the technological cynicism Rosenstock displayed on POST- and WORRY is still here, from the album title (with E-Mail replacing Cholera) on down: Breathless on DVD, White Noise, Voicemail. I see the appeals of these as subject matter. For all my primitivist bluster, I am willing without question to use tech available when I was a teenager, and still slowly adopt new practices at my own pace (getting my first smartphone in 2017, lowering my bourgeois standards to review streams and join the Apathy & Exhaustion WhatsApp group, etc). That DVDs and voicemails might be considered old and quaint shows you how fast norms continue to move, without any real time to consider the consequences. Dinosaur corporations might still gather customer email addresses with a fury, but kids no longer even make phone calls, don’t buy discs of plastic, don’t make email addresses except to please potential employers.
I’m proud to be a countervailing force to the official narrative of progress. It’s not full-on luddism (although their direct action was pretty great). It’s not about thinking these things are all bad or the previous was always good. Rosenstock wouldn’t be churning out recorded music with modern production value every five minutes if he was being dogmatic about it. He also wouldn’t have pioneered the idea of a free download label (Quote/Unquote Records). My love life has been shaped overwhelmingly by internet communication, bringing me to this place where the thought of a white holiday season is about as realistic as Google not harvesting all our data so they can invest the money in some hairbrained startup. It’s just about challenging a viewpoint of technological faith that considers itself both the solution to all problems and inevitable -- which is often dangerous, or at least boring. Sure, life for most is getting shittier in ways both instinctive and empirical, but look at the latest sleek home surveillance device, that you can now get free with a Spotify account!
Here’s another example of why this critical thinking and clinging to old norms remains well justified. Just as I did my initial listen to this album I got an email (ahem) from the progressive website The Baffler (one of the wonders of our paradise being the inability to do one thing at a time). Its subject was The Revolution Will Not Be Emailed, and an enclosed article informed us that ten percent of all Gmail responses are now being sent by Smart Reply, those automated suggested sentences you may have seen under your messages (“Got it, thanks!”). What a fucking stupid state of affairs. Things are so out of control that even the relatively recent notion of the internet-based relationship might be destined to become a subject of nostalgia (and thus, a future Jeff Rosenstock song). Good luck trying to build a romantic connection with anything other than a goddamn fembot fax machine with that particular innovation. We’re drowning in so much digital trash that we can’t even be fucked to write the things!
In my POST- review I made the request that if Rosenstock was going to continue moving away from punk influences into the arms of the Pitchfork Festival crowd, he should do it without falling entirely into the post-emo indie blueprint of The Promise Ring and Jets To Brazil. Well, on Love in the Time of E-Mail he has very much gone a different way, much to my enjoyment. It’s still likely to get the approval of alternative trendsetters though, with a sugar pop sensibility that has every potential to truly crossover. In the video for Freakin’ U Out (a fuzzy response to the old Samiam album) you can sense the duo’s desire for acceptance and relevance and also their unease with the idea. Jeff (complete with some bloody prison-packed foil balloons) is late for their fake history museum piece titled 100 years of Antarctigo Vespucci. Nobody shows up except an elderly woman who doesn’t even like their music, but she helps them realise that as long as they have their friendship, and even one person likes what they’ve put together, things can’t be that bad.
When not providing melodic joy, the likes of Voicemail, So Vivid!, E-mail and Lifelike remind me of last year’s Cities in Search of a Heart, the scratchy, melancholic release by The Movielife (happy first anniversary to my first assignment for Apathy & Exhaustion). These tracks, mostly coming at the very beginning and end of the record, are like segues from the harsh reality of life, acknowledging the listeners’ general feelings before inviting them to safely have fun in the intervening 28 minutes. Voicemail starts the album with the clack of analogue equipment, distorted notes and an overall vibe reminiscent of sample masters Boards of Canada and the nostalgia microgenre of hauntology. The opening line is “I broadcasted your face onto my TV screen,” because everything except your loved ones is on there. Lo and behold, the third and final record by Fake Problems was apparently called Real Ghosts Caught on Tape. Final track E-Mail ends with bird tweets rather than social media ones, the artists heading back out into the thawed wilderness.
I’m often the sort of writer who doesn’t so much sit down at the proverbial typewriter and open a vein as hammer my head into the keys in frustration, but in trying to do this review I feel some of the same anxiety as I did when writing about Jeff’s previous offering. At the time of that one I put it down to my having only just gotten back into writing criticism on a regular basis, but I now suspect that it's because Rosenstock’s music has a quality to it which is hard to explain. And that is the sort of thing that terrifies us glorified opinion hawkers. It also, thankfully, makes for interesting listening, and explains why the “official alternative” press has taken an interest in him. It’s in the dreamy goosebumps chorus of So Vivid!, the pummelling harmonies of Not Yours, and the cascading melodies of The Price Is Right Theme Song. Antarctigo Vespucci is at once relatable and evokes a magical musical ability. It’s most likely, of course, that as with most artists, Rosenstock has simply honed his craft over many years (I can’t say I thought much of The Arrogant Sons of Bitches, for example), and with his prolific output, that’s a lot of honing. Which is inspiringly human. As Jeff would doubtless agree, the idea of genius is mostly bollocks. Just keep at it. It’ll feel this good in the end.
You can hear Love in the Time of E-Mail at bandcamp.
It’s available in the U.S. from Polyvinyl in various formats, including 180-gram black vinyl with red starburst colouring. The label also has a selection of merch including a suitably analogue “I love to email” desk set. In Europe, Big Scary Monsters Records has 200 exclusive copies of the album in black with light pink splatter.