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Beach Slang’s Teenage Dreams

Or: how indie rock became wistful classic rock

Getty Images
Getty Images

Beach Slang frontman James Alex has now appeared on two zero-bullshit rock ’n’ roll albums with the word Teenage in the title, released by two different bands 22 years apart. The second one’s out tomorrow. It’s called A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings. Alex is 42 years old. These are the facts.

Beach Slang sing boozy, ecstatic, radically vulnerable, gutter-transcendent hymns to beer-lit punks of all ages; every line of every song would make a perfect yearbook quote for those seething, yearning outcasts so loathed and invisible their pictures aren’t in the yearbook at all. “Play me something that might save my life.” “Your arms are a car crash I want to die in.” “When I die, bury me in the clothes of my youth.” “Don’t be afraid to want to be alive.” It’s absurd, and overwhelming, and suspicious in its invigorating eagerness to rouse and soothe and reverse-age you. It’s all pretty fantastic. These are the feelings.

The visual aesthetic here boils down to “cigarette smoke billowing from the plump lips of young, alluring dirtbags.” It is not ineffective. The best line in this song is “YEAHHHHHHH!”

Based in Philadelphia, Beach Slang became a big whoop last year thanks to their debut album, The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us, which crams 10 celestial dive-bar anthems into 26 minutes. Three chords, one amp-volume setting (guess), and a discomfiting amount of truth. Notable song title: “Too Late to Die Young.” Notable chorus: “We are young and alive.” Swooning climax: a dumpster-prom theme called “Porno Love.” (The Things We Do is a tighter, more desperate, and slightly better album than A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings. That’s the opinion.)

It’s also a booze-fueled fount of shameless, exhilarating pandering to college-radio DJs of a particular age. (Mid-30 to early 40s, charitably.) “I feel like they made this record at me,” went the common sentiment among those who fell in love but felt a little guilty about being such easy marks for something so … Springsteenian. Rockist, even. Same deal for the Canadian duo Japandroids, whose exuberant and unabashed and fairly self-explanatory 2012 record Celebration Rock is still the 21st century’s gold standard for this uneasy and irresistible sort of thing.

This particular genre’s North Star — or the fiery, interstellar, planet-size-beer-kegs collision inevitably mistaken for a star by drunk, lonesome Midwesterners — is the Replacements, who were a going concern during Alex’s actual teenage years. He first hooked up with ’90s cult Pennsylvania pop-punks Weston, playing guitar on their ramshackle 1994 debut A Real-Life Story of Teenage Rebellion (that’s the first album) and a few more records of great consequence to certain native Pennsylvanians and little consequence to anyone else. (You had to be there. That’s a fact.) After the band broke up, Alex trudged through a protracted dark period he recently described to Stereogum thusly:

The three most important words there are “realness,” “permanence,” and “smooching.” Alex finally went straight (wife, kid, graphic-design gig) and revved up Beach Slang more or less simultaneously, and the band consequently has that strange and lovely indie-rock-as-classic-rock feel of being instantly nostalgic for itself, of feeling wistful about having done the things your lyrics suggest you’re currently doing. Such as being young, going nowhere, idolizing the rock bands your own band now devotedly emulates, etc. (Fans of the Hold Steady know this paradox well: Alex basically collapses the distinction between the cult-classic lyrics “Lord, to be 17 forever” and “Lord, to be 33 forever.”) And so now, when he sings, “The gutter’s alive / With young hearts tonight,” you get to decide if he’s in the gutter, too, or if he’s one of the young hearts, or both, or neither. You get to decide if you believe him.

As choruses go, “I’m an atom bomb / Tick-tick-tickin’” is immediately believable, no problem. (Side note: Get a load of that video dude’s eyebrows.) Here’s the thing about worshiping the Replacements. As you can learn in Bob Mehr’s exhaustive and excellent new band bio, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, the reason Paul Westerberg and Co. were so credible as shambling coulda-been-rock-star fuckups is that they were actual fuckups, prone to self-destruction, self-sabotage, self-loathing, self-annihilation. Pickled and broke and miserable and doomed. It’s one of those books where every record-store rat and studio engineer and label goon seems to get a three-page backstory, but that context is so rife with broken homes and mental illness and alcoholism that the accumulated weight is as crushing as it is poignant. The Replacements’ story doesn’t begin well and mostly ends worse; the only triumph in a song like “Bastards of Young” radiates from the song itself. Which only magnifies both the misery and the triumph.

So it’s bracing in interviews when Alex alludes to his own dark, isolated childhood or admits that even the song called “Punks at the Disco Bar” is “about my dad. It’s always about my fucking dad.” At first blush Beach Slang might sound very simple, very derivative, very naive, very “How do you do, fellow kids?” But a lot of that turns out to be a defense mechanism. And an offense mechanism. Prose as purple as its bruises.

Alex says A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings is mostly written from the perspective of fans he met while touring behind The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us, which means that his second album is about living vicariously through the people who lived vicariously through his first album about living vicariously through his younger self. The best song is called “Hot Tramps.” “I’m with you,” Alex intones, on a song called “Future Mixtape for the Art Kids.” “Are you with me?” For zero-bullshit rock ’n’ rollers, Beach Slang sure do bring up a lot of weird, neurotic questions. But that’s the only one that matters. For however long you can dial in, you’re only as young as he feels.