He is an exuberant punk-rock supernova, grinning and roaring and not-so-quietly despairing. He is a rambunctious bard of late capitalism, perceptive as he is blunt, hooky as he is wordy. He will challenge what is likely your low opinion of third-wave ska. (Relatedly, he is a proud New Yorker and battle-hardened Knicks fan who considers Knicks fandom an excellent way to “get used to liking something even though it’s bad.”) He will goad you into joyous shout-along choruses of “We’re tired! We’re bored!” and “Beat beat beat beat beating my head against a wall!” He is the architect of POST-, the first great record of 2018, released for free unexpectedly on New Year’s Day. He earns his lyrics’ exclamation points and the album’s all-caps title. (His last album was called WORRY.) He is, perhaps, your new favorite band. He is a guy named Jeff.
So let’s start off with a quick three-jam primer on Jeff Rosenstock. First, off 2016’s WORRY, is “Festival Song,” enormous and subversive, with two monster hooks and a corporation-unfriendly chant of “They wouldn’t be your friend if you weren’t worth something.” That song killed at last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, where an awestruck Rosenstock, a basement-show lifer unaccustomed to a crowd so large and an environment so advertiser heavy, gleefully worked his cut of the profits into his stage banter: “Seventy. Five. Hundred. Dollars. For us. To play. This festival.”
“I’m Serious, I’m Sorry,” off 2015’s We Cool?, is just as raucous but far more wounded. Rosenstock excels at a specific sort of anthemic vulnerability, with a thrilling command of dynamics that somehow goes far behind simple “super-quiet verse, super-loud verse” clichés. Each new hook is a joyous gut punch, except it feels like you are punching somebody else in the gut. Somebody evil. Somebody who deserves it.
The thrill is so overpowering that, in this case, you might not immediately realize that it’s a song about grief and functions as Rosenstock’s very loud and very heartfelt apology to an unnamed friend for his failure to ease her particular grief: “Meghan held your body / As you were sobbing at the party / And I couldn’t leave the kitchen / I ingested too much poison.” It’s a mosh pit at a funeral.
Finally, there is “USA,” which kicks off POST- in towering fashion, an enraged State of the Union Address packed into 7:32. Opening lines:
Dumbfounded, downtrodden, and dejected
Crestfallen, grief-stricken, and exhausted
Trapped in my room while the house was burnin’
To the motherfuckin’ ground
This is the one with the chorus “Well, you promised us the stars / And now we’re tired and bored.” It further devolves into a mass chant of what sounds like “F.U., USA!” but is really “Et tu, USA,” a subtle distinction, but important enough that Rosenstock clarified it on Twitter. “I was gonna call the song ‘Et Tu, USA’ and ended up just calling it ‘USA’,” Rosenstock tells me, “because that sounds like fucking a bit much for track one on a record.”
It’s a song about vehement political disagreement and how it can lead you to stagger around, glowering at your fellow Americans, wondering which ones, exactly, you vehemently disagree with:
Man in a crossover with his family
Sketched in decals on the window smiling
Driving parallel in the lane beside me
Oh, it doesn’t matter now
But please be honest
Tell me, was it you?
The dreamy keyboard interlude halfway through heightens the impact. “I thought about making this an ambient record,” Rosenstock says, chatting over the phone in early January. “Or a record that was mostly ambient with punk stuff in the middle of it, and it ended up being the other way around.”
He didn’t set out to write a widescreen political-dissent anthem, necessarily: The song’s original version is confined to a digital recorder that got stolen during a San Francisco tour stop. (“I think the lyrics were bad,” Rosenstock says, “so I’m glad that I didn’t use those lyrics.”) Finally, he holed up at a friend’s trailer in the Catskill Mountains and let ’er rip. “It was just almost directly after I had been in D.C. for Trump’s inauguration to protest, and then also for the Women’s March,” he recalls. “And a lot of other stuff happened, and I just kind of went up there, turned off all my shit, turned off my internet, took the internet off my phone, took Twitter off my phone, took everything off my phone, and just sat down with a notebook and wrote.”
Before he started recording under his own name in 2012—his debut solo full-length was called I Look Like Shit—Rosenstock spent 10 years fronting a far more ska-centric outfit called Bomb the Music Industry! That band earned both its exclamation point and its reputation as a hardscrabble DIY operation, releasing all its records for free and breaking up only when the day-job hustle got too bleak. “To put it simply,” the band wrote on Tumblr in its mellow breakup announcement, “the 9-10 months of our lives when we are not playing music are not fantastic.”
All this hard-fought experience now fuels an incredibly rousing live show—here is a photo of Rosenstock crowd surfing while playing a sax solo—and some of the best, brightest, most brazen songwriting in 2010s punk rock. He’s a veteran with the boundless enthusiasm of a rookie, taking nothing for granted, speaking for himself so forcefully that he’s starting to speak for way more people than he ever imagined. There are advantages, theoretically, to finding that success and wielding that power when you’re a little older.
“My friends who never know what’s going on in my life will tell you that I’m a pretty private person,” Rosenstock says. “It was hard to reconcile those things for me: You know what, suck it up, just try and do this and see what happens. So I think that perspective helps me handle it better. That said, I’m fucking 35, and my body doesn’t work as good as it did when I was in my mid-20s. I lose my voice easier. Physically, I wish this happened when I was in my 20s—that would’ve been more convenient. But spiritually or cosmically or whatever, man, I’m fucking lucky it’s happening at all.”
WORRY was a huge breakthrough, capturing both the hedonism of a rowdy house party and the crippling anxiety that reigns before and after, and maybe even during. Even its wildest moments are shot through with vivid ennui. “After We Cool?, I was talking to people a lot about depression, because that’s what a lot of that record deals with, and I didn’t like talking about it,” Rosenstock says. “I still don’t like talking about it. I have a hard time talking about it. That’s kind of what that record is about, and that’s why I don’t like talking about it, you know? So on WORRY, I was trying to reapproach how I wrote songs, and I was trying to write songs that were more about love, but I think because of however my fucking brain works, it turned into this thing where it’s like, How could love possibly exist in a world like this?”
Unsurprisingly, Rosenstock’s outlook on society hasn’t improved much. POST- is caught between righteous fury and total paralysis; before you get to songs called “All This Useless Energy,” “Powerlessness,” and “Beating My Head Against a Wall,” there is the downhill sprint of “Yr Throat.” Chorus: “What’s the point of having a voice / When it gets stuck inside your throat?” Expanded thesis:
I’ll ramble incessantly
On pointless rattlings in my head
Guitar tones, ELO arrangements
The differences in an MP3
And a vinyl record that you can hear
But when it means something
I always disappear
That’s not true; as one small example, POST- is available right now as a pay-what-you-want Bandcamp download, with 10 percent of all proceeds going to a charity called Defend Puerto Rico. But the song captures the way frivolous things feel particularly ignoble right now, given the state of the world.
“I’m an anxious person,” Rosenstock says. “I have a hard time talking about things. I know I have a platform to talk about things now, and I feel like sometimes I fucking have a hard time doing it. I think everybody has a hard time doing it. Not everybody—not, like, really awesome people who fucking figure their shit out. But the rest of us had a hard time talking to our families after Trump got elected. Thanksgiving that year was fucked. You get cut off from people. For me, not knowing how to solve that problem of being able to be like, ‘Well, but hold on a second. Listen, listen to this. There’s like a guitar through a Leslie just really quietly in the background there.’ It feels fucking pointless. Who gives a shit about the guitar in the Leslie? The world’s on fire.”
POST- ends with “Let Them Win,” another shout-along rallying cry with a deceptively simple message: “We’re not gonna let them win / Fuck no.” The deceptive part is that the way the song strikes you is entirely up to you: It depends on whom you regard as them, and how optimistic you are about beating them.
“For me, it’s just returning to that situation that I had in junior high and high school of getting bullied, and I was like, I’m a fucking adult, and I’m getting bullied by my fucking president,” Rosenstock says. ”And that’s me—I can’t even put myself in the shoes of women and people of color and immigrants and people who are just getting fucking destroyed and annihilated. I wanted to write a song that was just, like, Stand up to the fucking bully, basically. I wanted to write something that, when I listened to it, I felt like, Yeah, man, I’ve gotten beaten down, but I know why I got beaten down, and I’m not gonna fucking let it happen anymore. I think it’s super fair to not be able to feel like that sometimes. But I don’t know—music’s all about things that you feel for split seconds, and try and capture.”
At his best—at both his most and least frivolous—Rosenstock can make those exuberant and electrifying split seconds last a lifetime, or at least the length of one punk-rock show, or one song, or one wounded but somehow bulletproof chorus. That feeling is priceless, or in any event, it’s well worth $7,500.