I remember, as a high schooler, seeing my friend come to class with a bright yellow shirt with a mysterious image and text that read simply, “The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die.”
I knew from word of mouth that this was the most popular piece of merchandise from a beloved Connecticut emo band, but even then the name cast an almost mythical cloud over its music. In the New Jersey punk scene that I loved so much and came of age to, the band was a sort of legend, a group you always heard about but never got the chance to see in basements or Elks Lodges.
When I first heard its music, it was as grandiose and obtuse as its name and reputation implied. I found it incredibly immersive, but also intimidating. It seemed to come from a physical and emotional place that was far more profound than the endless suburban sprawl I was used to.
Even with years of separation from that first experience with this nine-piece band, when I first heard “January 10th, 2014,” “Harmlessness’s” first single, I still felt out of my league. A sprawling, overwhelming track revolving around the This American Life story “Diana, Hunter of Bus Drivers” and Diana, the Roman goddess of women and childbirth, it is both deeply chilling and cathartic.
“Diana, Hunter of Bus Drivers” is the story of an unknown female vigilante who shot and killed two male bus drivers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in retaliation for years of unsolved and ignored rape cases perpetuated by bus drivers like them. The song rotates perspectives in multiple ways, with frontman David Bello and vocalist/keyboardist Katie Shanholtzer-Dvorak trading verses and positions in the narrative.
Though Bello confronts the listener almost immediately on where they stand (”Do you become the driver when they drop you off?”), Shanholtzer-Dvorak cements the band’s position in the thundering chorus. “Put up a statue/of the new killer/out of chains/in the waxing moon.”
And to think that this staggeringly scaled bit of realism is only the third track. On “Harmlessness,” released Sep. 25, the group is less a conventional rock band than a visceral ensemble. On its watch, “Willie (For Howard)” morphs from a beautifully willowy bit of atmospheric pop-punk to a restless, excitable march.
The band toys with the album’s eight-minute closing epic, “Mount Hum,” like a tennis ball. One second Bello is pointedly intoning over a palm-muted ballad, the next the song is cracking open into a deafening, high-powered instrumental meltdown.
“Harmlessness” evolves continuously before your eyes, even when, at times, you may not want it to.
Though the lyrics mainly deal in crushing absolutes, they interact with the music in an equal, democratic partnership. In the acoustic opener, “You Can’t Live There Forever,” Shanholtzer-Dvorak sings “we’re afraid to die, and that’s alright.”
Death rears its head quite a bit on “Harmlessness,” on that opener, the aforementioned “January 10th, 2014,″ “Rage Against The Dying of Light” (”before I die/take me to the place where we wrote our names wrong/but they shared a space,”) and on the final line of “Mount Hum,” “we’re all gonna die.”
As with all of “Harmlessness” though, the listener can take what they want from these lines. They can find solace in the more spare parts of “Mount Hum” or its gargantuan instrumental eruptions. They can see “January 10th, 2014” as a bleak tragedy or an uplifting example of rising above oppression.
There is never really a clear answer, and there is never the sense that there’s an onus on you to discover one. More often, it’s easier to just sit back in awe, and watch the whole picture unfold in front of you.
Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected], or followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82