From shitgaze to chillwave, the last half-decade in music has been a blur. Lo-fi recording techniques and impressionistic lyricism have come to represent a noncommittal norm, guided by ghosts of history and a very modern sort of ennui bordering on post-paranoia — the terrible and normalized acceptance that the worst can and probably will happen. It seems our only ongoing concern is how to get back — or pretend to get back — to where we once belonged.
"I was really tired of things just being kind of awash," songwriter and guitarist Frankie Rose explains. "I was tired of the haze."
You might know Rose from her drumming stints in hazy NYC buzz bands Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts, affected jangle-rock groups that caught on quickly with the Brooklyn set (and thus with Pitchfork, and thus with everyone else) but have yet to truly deliver on their copious promise. Like many of their revivalist peers, those acts seem to flirt with greatness even while they coolly, stubbornly refuse it. They seem stuck in an imagined past, in love with every forged minute.
The irony is that, in part, Rose's new album, Interstellar, takes an even deeper dive into the murky nostalgia pool with a synth-drenched nod to the 1980s brought up to date by a certain dutiful millennial posturing. But it is also a clean break. Though it also marked her welcome debut as a bandleader, Rose's 2010 solo album, Frankie Rose and the Outs, was a rather flat continuation of her garage rock history. "I feel like it's a natural progression to want to make something bigger and cleaner and brighter," she says, referring to her sophomore outing. "I decided a lot of that would [come from] the drums, and I wanted to replace the guitars with synths. I knew [it] was going to have a different feel. But it definitely ended up being a lot bigger than I even imagined it to be."
Guided by the heavy hand of electro producer Le Chev, Rose spent more time and energy on Interstellar than anything before. Rose is an alluring frontwoman and gifted melodist, and armed with Tom Petty's "Don't Bore Us, Get to the Chorus" credo as inspiration, she assembled a fearsome lineup of hooks. The oozing "Know Me" could be a Disintegration-era B-side by the Cure, except that Rose chooses to engage rather than evade. Meanwhile, "Had We Had It" features a rapturous chorus that bursts out of the song's cloud like so much sunbeam. The record is swarming with earworms — the choruses are the songs.
"When I listen to music," Rose says, "I like to hear something memorable, something that catches you. That's actually the first thing I start with, something that could move someone to sing it in their head later in the day. I start with the hook, always."
Often that's also where it ends. Interstellar, which runs a mere 28 minutes, is literally short on substance. Loosely formed themes abound — stars, moon, sky — but aside from a general air of ambiguity, there's not much connecting them. Rose herself admits to the challenge of assembling a cohesive record. "Lyrically, I'm no poet, for sure," she says. "That's definitely the most difficult thing about writing an album for me. I thought it would be fun to put these parameters on myself and make this album about otherworldly places. It was comforting to me to have some sort of a story. In my mind, it's a story."
But if the central narrative exists only in its creator's mind, the music fills the spaces — vast, humanist spaces, the widening gulf between our past and future. As easy as it is to draw parallels to previous sounds, there is a singularity about Interstellar that's evident in songs like "Apples for the Sun," the album's brilliant sore thumb. Rose's voice, cloaked in layers of reverb, floats over clean, cavernous piano chords that seem to emanate from the bottom of the ocean. The music fades to a dull memory and finally rises again, briefly. Though its lyrics are largely indecipherable, the song seems to ache for upheaval.
"Staying inside is making me lazy," Rose hums on "Moon in My Mind." Despite Interstellar's nostalgic conceit, it places itself squarely in a new era by virtue of its sonic boldness alone; if it's not a total rejection of the status quo, it's at least a step in a new direction. Indeed, if there is a macrocosmic cultural theme to ascribe to the album, it is one of irrefutable progress. Like Rose, we are emerging from the haze, finally hearing things clearer.