Review Summary: Alternate rating: 4.5. Bear with me please.
There's nothing I like to see more as a music enthusiast than when an album is loved and hated for the exact same reasons. That I can react to an album's ideas with outpouring love while somewhere else a listener reels back in revulsion – but still shares the same observations, understanding of the music – is amazing to me. It speaks to how idiosyncratic the listening process is, that our unique personalities, experiences, habits are mirrored in our reaction to art. So music discussion is most effective as suggested thinking, dialogue that aids us in unraveling our reaction to the sounds that confound us. The ones that do so mercilessly, the albums that leave us in personal crises, bouncing between extremes in frustration, can be the most worthwhile. I've finally reached peace with Tomboy
, conviction in my viewpoint on this record, yet this is turbulent contentment, love and hate muddled into something terrifyingly mutual. The ambiguity in interpretation - the heart of this record, really – is the origin of the risk that drove such thought patterns. But it's been a learned perspective, one steadily cultivated. Let me get back to the record in a short while; a detour into my listening history is in order.
2010 saw me in agreement with many favorites - The Monitor
, The Age of Adz
, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
– but I was in hostile opposition to a certain "smart" indie rock album: Public Strain
. Smugly satisfied with its detuned guitars, dispassionate vocals and haughty deconstruction of the "indie rock sound," all aspects of it disgusted me. I hated it intensely, a proverbial 1/5, yet I hesitated to present my opinion as such: that would've meant that I didn't understand the record, right? Years later, I'm feverishly drawn to the same attitude I once rejected on Public Strain
. I had to open up to its nihilism, have it consume me, hate how it made me feel, find thrill in that sadomasochism, scorn myself for engaging with an album so ridiculously, and eventually accept such emotional dependency. That process altered how I receive music, most notably in how I experienced the follow-up to The Monitor
. Local Business
was mostly panned by the fanbase and understandably so: the songwriting was tepid, the guitars sluggish, Stickles' wail more cringeworthy than ever. The album obsessed over worthlessness and feeling like shi
t to the extent that it often sounded like shit
, and that was exciting. Concepts of human failure were executed unremarkably - by which I mean appropriately – amounting to one of my favorite releases of the year. I became drawn to total, consuming expressions in music; that nihilism and worthlessness in theme can be mirrored in songwriting as well became a source of appeal.
I guess I should start talking about Tomboy
is a tedious, monotonous album. Every track drones on, at times offensively, submitting to stagnation and wallowing in it. In 2010, Noah Lennox followed up his vibrant summer record with murky indulgence, technicolor euphoria discarded for monochrome mud. The promise that initiates Tomboy
, "know you can count on me
," is an unfunny joke, fan expectations disregarded in favor of conceited artistry. Tomboy is like a burrito tossed at your windshield, except the burrito lands with a dull thud and hideously slides down your front window.
These are all reasons to dislike Tomboy
, reasons that ring true for me, but I can't deny that I find this material affecting, even heartbreaking in its monotony, not in spite of it. The wheezy guitar lines, mundane synth textures, plodding rhythms, unemotive wails and flat lyrics come together to form an expression of life that is burdened by defeat, a soul resigned to apathy in the face of challenge. See how the title track circulates in light gravity but is propelled through by heavy feeling: "take my life so hard, take my life so hard, take my life so hard
," Noah repeats, elongating his phrases to drive home the burden of self-reflection. The music is in constant motion and repetition, yet the movement is external, the world moving past a self that has become immobile. The mood can't be defined solely in the negative, however; it is too forcefully ambiguous for that. There is warmth to the sound, comfort in the lethargic pace - sometimes even hope. "Last Night at the Jetty" shoots to the sky in its chorus, but the verses question whether the happiness was even real: "Didn't I have a good time?
" That Noah follows with conviction, "I know I had a good time now
" is reassuring, but it's upsetting that on Tomboy
memory can negate genuine joy, ecstasy can be overruled by depression, apathy can completely suppress enjoyment of the daily routine.
No track exemplifies how consuming the stagnation on this record is than "Friendship Bracelet". Beneath stormy waters, Noah's words bubble and disperse, ugly hollowness reverberating the pain of self-isolation: "I always thought that I'd grow further from, further and further and further and even further from the very people close to me.
" Words spiral in internal terror, the fear of loneliness radiating with each utterance of hurtful distance. The song goes absolutely nowhere, phrases dispersing aimlessly, ideas unresolved to conclusion. It's a tedious track brought down by failure in song construction, but that somehow makes it resonate further, the hurt more concrete by the all-encompassing faults. The album closes with "Benefica," Tomboy
's shot at catharsis that somehow is its most ambiguous track. It feels transcendent because of how irreducible the emanated feeling is to words, sublime relief that is ecstatic, defeated, imagined, lived through, and anything else. It is defined more by the listener and how they've experienced Tomboy
than its own attributes, and that makes it magical.
We often speak about music in absolutes as either "good" or "bad," but that limits our reaction to art that is messily, wonderfully in between. My reaction to Tomboy
is one of love and hate, adoration and frustration, amounting to something valuable and irreplaceable. There is so much to receive from music when absolutes are dropped; beauty can be found in weakness, even when that concerns an artist's product and not just its themes. Do I entertain abusive relationships with my music? Maybe, but I can't deny the fulfillment that that brings. Should you expose yourself to such intensity, such conflict when approaching the music you experience? I'll leave that for you to decide.