There’s a specter hanging over the entirety of POST-, Jeff Rosenstock’s fourth solo album, that goes unnamed throughout. Even if Rosenstock never comes out and says it directly, the manner in which he wrote the songs offers insight about this nameless being. Just after the 2016 presidential election, the 35-year-old Long Island native isolated himself in a double-wide trailer near the Catskill Mountains, producing songs like “USA,” “Powerlessness,” and “Let Them Win” that make it rather obvious what—or who, rather—Rosenstock had on his mind.
It’s interesting to see this surface on POST- because, on Rosenstock’s 2016 album, WORRY, released a month before America went to the polls, it was as if he saw it all coming. WORRY was a collection of uproarious punk songs and big, sing-along choruses, but the tracks were concerned—almost exclusively—with death, loss, and the exhaustion brought on by watching videos on social media of innocent civilians dying. WORRY was a dark record made for a dark time. And given the way things have escalated over the past 14 months, POST- is even darker.
WORRY connected to a wide audience because Rosenstock’s perspective was not only relatable, but aided by the fact that he’d written the sharpest batch of songs since Vacation, the 2011 swan song from his long-running ska-punk band Bomb The Music Industry! The reviews of WORRY were glowing, and soon Rosenstock and his band found placement on major music festivals, cracking through punk’s glass ceiling and into a pocket of the world it’d long been ostracized from. Though, true to form, Rosenstock used those big stages to disrupt the proceedings, calling out festival sponsors and revealing how much his band got paid to play before jumping into “Festival Song,” his indictment of commercialized festival culture.
It’s fitting that, by the time Rosenstock was having his breakout moment, he already had another record prepped, even if it was only in his head. When he and his band—bassist John DeDomenici, guitarist Mike Huguenor, drummer Kevin Higuchi, and the recently added Dan Potthast—decamped to San Francisco to record with Jack Shirley again for POST-, they constrained themselves in a manner echoing Rosenstock’s confined writing process: POST- was recorded in an 86-hour sprint. In addition, the band didn’t even enter the studio until the first week of December, even though it’d settled on a release date of New Year’s Day.
The resulting record—which also happens to be Rosenstock’s first for Polyvinyl Records—is an extension of WORRY’s fractured psyche. WORRY showcased Rosenstock’s craft as a pop songwriter, and it also saw him rush through seven short genre experiments, each lasting just about a minute before bleeding into the next. It was a bit of a flex, displaying his command of genre, along with his ability to distill big ideas—and long, wordy phrases—into the most limited structures. It was claustrophobic, but it reflected the world Rosenstock spent the bulk of the album singing about.
By contrast, POST- opts for songs that are less clean and conventional, often taking on linear constructions that build toward go-for-broke finishes. Though Rosenstock’s no stranger to long songs—Bomb The Music Industry!’s “King Of Minneapolis” saga being a prime example—after the six-second introduction of “Mornin’!,” POST- opens with a sprawling seven-minute track.
“USA” launches in a manner similar to many of the best songs in Rosenstock’s arsenal, with him emphatically strumming power chords while finding a way to sound as if he’s both singing and screaming at the same time. When the rest of the band kicks in, it shows just how tight of a unit it’s become, showcasing the crucial contributions of the members not named Jeff Rosenstock. DeDomenici’s bass lines have a way of being complex and melodic while tying together the band’s more manic moments, and Huguenor’s lead guitar parts are further proof that he’s one of the most inventive players in punk.
When “USA” shifts around the midsection, it establishes a theme that’s touched on in both the lyrics and music throughout POST-; this is an album that is chiefly concerned with losing hope in your country, yourself, and those around you. It’s a record made about the people who need a helping hand, and who empathize with others that do, but know that support will never come. And when “USA” comes out of a wall-shaking chorus and slowly starts to fade into a sparse landscape, it’s as if all the hope that Rosenstock peppered throughout WORRY has since run out.
From there, Rosenstock dashes off a handful of tracks that are just as hooky as anything found on his previous albums, but the songs here are far more adventurous, with layers of melodies swelling up and commanding attention from the background. In the case of “Powerlessness,” his band sounds like a Beach Boys record played at triple speed, with Rosenstock’s mile-a-minute vocal approach making it so his words slip right past you. But when you finally home in on what he’s saying, the track’s meaning, and the album’s overarching concerns, are exposed: “We marched on the interstate and blocked the cops / The echoes of the flash grenades / Rang in our ears as we moved along / I called it ‘positivity’ / And congratulated myself on a job well done / But after a couple of days / The fire that I thought would burn it down was gone.”
Rosenstock has never been one to use simple slogans as a substitute for emotional heft, and that’s more pronounced than ever on this album. Instead of congratulating himself for taking part in protests, only to move on with his life thereafter, Rosenstock holds himself accountable, putting his failures on display instead of cherry-picking the Instagram-worthy highlights. This is, by and large, the ethos of POST-, which makes an entire song out of the metaphor of beating your head against a wall. And while “Melba” is a brief reprieve from this all-consuming dread, the 11-minute closer “Let Them Win” is where Rosenstock’s optimism finally shows itself.
After running down a laundry list of ways that the rich and powerful work to attack those that don’t fit into their mold, Rosenstock keeps circling back to one simple statement: “We’re not gonna let them win.” He offers variations on this phrase, stating, “They’re not gonna win / Again.” But rather than coming off as naïve optimism, it presents as plain fact. He rallies around this saying as the song builds, then it all starts to unfurl, transitioning into a swirling ambient piece for its final five minutes. Instead of projecting unease or wariness, “Let Them Win” has a calming effect, toward its end expressing what comes after worry, both literally and figuratively, as it forces you to make peace with the confusing environment and find a path forward.
POST- is an album about finding hope in the future. Not in a passive, pacifying way, but by challenging yourself to step up and take action, day in and day out. While that sounds incredibly daunting—and like a really tiring listen—the album’s most impressive trait is that it makes all that vital work feel joyous and communal. In total, POST- calls on both its author and its listeners to improve, even if it doesn’t come easy.