Preoccupations’ songs have always worked through themes of creation, destruction, and futility, and they’ve always done it with singular post-punk grit. The textures are evocative and razor-sharp. The wire is always a live one. But while that darker side may have been well-explored, that’s not quite the same as it being fully, intensely lived. This time it was, and the result is ’New Material’, a collection that broadens and deepens Preoccupations to a true mastery of their sound. In it lies the difference between witnessing a car crash and crashing your own, between jumping into an ocean and starting to swallow the water. “It’s an ode to depression,’ singer Matt Flegel says plainly. “To depression and self-sabotage, and looking inward at yourself with extreme hatred.” Typically resilient, the months leading up to recording ‘New Material’ brought a new order of magnitude to feelings that had been creeping up on Flegel for some time. He’d written bits and pieces of lyrics through the course of it, small snippets he hadn’t assigned to any one thought or feeling but were emblematic of a deeper issue, something germinating that was dense and numb and fully unshakeable. As the band began writing music, that process gave shape to the sheer tonnage of what he’d been carrying. With virtually nothing written or demoed before the band sat down together, the process was more collaborative than before. It was almost architectural, building some things up, tearing others down to the beams, sitting down and writing songs not knowing what they were about. But for Flegel, it led to a reckoning.“Finishing ‘Espionage’ was when I realized,” says Flegel. “I looked at the rest of the lyrics and realized the magnitude of what was wrong.”‘New Material’ builds a world for that feeling, playing through its layers and complexities while hiding almost nothing. That inscrutable side is part of the magic, here, and a necessary counterweight to the straight-jab clarity of Flegel’s lyrics. You can deep-dive the lyrics or zone into a riff; you can face it or you can get lost in it. “My ultimate goal would be to make a record where nobody knows what instrument is playing ever,”says multi-instrumentalist Scott Munro, “and I think we’ve come closer than ever, here. It shouldn’t sound robotic — it should sound human, like people playing instruments. It’s just maybe no one knows what they are.” Opener “Espionage” lives up to Munro’s goals, kicking off with a clattering, rhythmic echo that gives way to sprinting percussion and a melody in the orbit of Manchester’s classics. “Manipulation” explores the futility of going through the motions, balancing a droney, minimal march with a thunder roll that brings it to the brink, and to the doomed romantic declaration, “please don’t remember me like I’ll always remember you.” “Disarray” bursts up like a blackened confetti cannon, the song’s undeniably bright melody dancing over a refrain of “disarray, disarray, disarray” and literally nothing else. “A lot of this is about futility,” he says, “trying to find something where there’s nothing to be found.” That hunt turns into a search-and-destroy mission on “Decompose”, a tense, speedy, “blow yourself up and start again” type of song, the very picture of creation and destruction, as Flegel writes “for better or worse, we are cursed in the ways that we tend to be.” And while calling an album ’New Material’ might seem like a smartass move, the truth is it’s as matter-of-fact a title as Espionage, Disarray, or anything else on the record. Why fight that?If the through-line unifying Preoccupations’ work is a furious, almost punishing cyclical quality, ‘New Material’ does offer some relief. “This is somehow the most uptempo thing we’ve ever done,” observes Flegel. That propulsive, itchy quality rescues ‘New Material’ from the proverbial bottom of the pit. To write these songs is to force oneself to reignite, to play them is to
stand up and reengage. Closer “Compliance” may not seem revelatory on first listen, but it is deeply elemental, a crucial finale and the band’s first standalone instrumental. Original versions were built to death, reexamined and re-destroyed until they landed on just two chords — something simple, fundamental — and resolved to make meaning out of that, to show instead of tell. Flegel acknowledges it is more affecting to him than any other song on the record. It’s not redemption, more like a forced reprieve.
Flegel is quick to point out how little mystery is in the titles of these songs: Anxiety, Monotony, Degraded, Stimulation, Fever. “Monotony is a dead end job; Anxiety is changing as a band,” he says. “Memory is watching someone lose their mind; Fever is comforting someone. It’s all drawing from very specific things.” These things — bigger ones like breakups, smaller ones like simply trying to calm someone down — are ultimately the things that explode our brains, that keep us up at night. And so where their previous album ‘Viet Cong’ was built in some ways on the abstract cycles of creation and destruction, ‘Preoccupations’ explores how that sometimes-suffocating, sometimes-revelatory trap affects our lives. “We discarded a lot, reworking songs pretty ruthlessly,” Munro explains. “We ripped songs down to the studs, taking one piece we liked and building something new around it. It was pretty cannibalistic, I guess. Existing songs were killed and used to make new ones.” Sonically, it’s still blistering. But it’s a different kind of blister, less the the scorched earth of the band’s previous LP, more like a blood blister on a fingertip: something immediate and physical that you push and stare at. It’s yours.
Opener “Anxiety” articulates that tension: clattering sounds drift into focus, bouncing and echoing off one another until one bone-shattering moment when the full band strikes at once, moving from something untouchable to get to something deeply felt. “Monotony” moves at a narcoleptic pace by Preoccupations’ standards, but snaps to attention to make its point, that “this repetition’s killing you // it’s killing everyone.” “Stimulation” opens with a snarl and hurls itself forward at what feels like a million bpm, pausing for one mortal moment of relief before barreling onward. “Degraded” surprises, with something like a traditional structure and an almost pop-leaning melody to its chorus, twisting the bigness of Preoccupations’ music to sideswipe the clear, finite smallness of its subjects and events. And the 11-minute-long “Memory” is the album’s keystone, with an intimate narrative and a truly timeless post-punk center. There’s love piercing through the iciness here, fighting its way forward in each of the song’s distinct sections.
As always, there is something crystalline to what they’ve made, a blast of cold air in a burning hot place. All this adds up to Preoccupations: a singular, bracing collection that proves what’s punishing can also be soothing, everything can change without disrupting your compass. Your best year can be your worst year at the same time. Whatever sends you flying can also help you land.