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The Front Bottoms and Current Joys aren’t “sad boy” sellouts

Jun 12, 2023Jun 12, 2023

This is my Barbienheimer. Two of my favorite bands — The Front Bottoms and Current Joys — have released their first albums in years, titled You Are Who You Hang Out With and LOVE + POP, respectively, on the same day: Aug. 4. At first listen, their genres seem deceptively similar — the “sad boy” indie rock niche that’s done so well in the past decade — but if we dig deeper, we can appreciate their differences, especially in these new releases.

The Front Bottoms comprises frontman guitarist Brian Sella and drummer Mathew Uychich, with many a rotating and touring musician to round out their instrumentation and recordings (Nemes frontman Josh Knowles was credited as additional instrumentation on this album) — while Current Joys is just one guy named Nick Rattigan, the drummer and lead singer of Surf Curse. These different constitutions are reflected in each artist’s new release: The Front Bottoms’s heavily collaborative albums vary widely in terms of concepts and quality, but even at their lowest, they deliver uniquely emotional highs. Current Joys, on the other hand, retains one man’s singular, cinematic vision. Let me explain in pizza terms: Current Joys is the Original Cottage Inn that might fit my dietary requirements with its restaurant-catered pies; The Front Bottoms is the hometown chain that occasionally spices it up but still tastes like home.

Together, the two artists encompass the whole spectrum of “sad boy” vibes — The Front Bottoms’s frenetic folk punk spirit denotes daytime drives; Current Joys’s somnambulatory sound synthesizes starry sojourns. The Front Bottoms’s Midwest emo energy feels like the faint warmth of summer and sunlight filtering through autumn leaves, while Current Joys’s ’80s-esque alternative synths feel like sinking into the sleepy storms of winter and spring. The Front Bottoms is scream-sobbing in the shower and Current Joys is a saltier bath; The Front Bottoms is passing out in a drunken, sniveling stupor and Current Joys is a sober sorrow before sleep.

You Are Who You Hang Out With and LOVE + POP seem determined to grow past these impressions. Rattigan kicks off LOVE + POP with a cover of rapper Lil Peep’s “Walk Away as the Door Slams,” which at first seems like a traditional Current Joys reinterpretation, like his cover of Grimes’s “Symphonia IX.” Pensive electric plucking pairs with somber acoustic strumming to drive the track alongside a drum machine, while Rattigan’s near-raspy vocals ring out like he just finished crying. The song’s second half introduces a new element to the lonely Current Joys discography, perhaps foreign to some fans: a woman. Maddy “YOUR ANGEL” Boyd takes the second stanza with an almost angelic air that reimagines the Lil Peep track as a conversation between two lovers harmonizing on the final chorus. With this first track, Rattigan reveals the record’s new rap elements.

Now, here’s a sentence that defines The Front Bottoms and showcases how they contradict traditional music criticism, quoth emo essayist Nate the Mate: “The Front Bottoms SUCK and I love them.” The appeal is in their inconsistencies: their instrumentation ideally idiosyncratic, their oration impeccably imperfect, their ideas exquisitely eccentric. The band is at its best when these inconsistencies are all integrated thematically. They kick off the first track of You Are Who You Hang Out With, “Emotional,” with the strumming of an electric guitar; then Sella cries out under an autotuned artifice. The following stanzas layer more electronic instrumentation and autotune until it crashes and is abandoned at the start of the track’s second half, when Sella begins to harmonize out of time with himself. In the final moments, “Emotional” brings both the acoustic and electronic elements back together for a dialectic denouement.

As LOVE + POP proceeds into the title track and beyond, Rattigan reveals more of his hip-hop and breakcore forays that stray far from his past albums, like laying a beat over a slowed sample of one of his earlier hits, “Blondie,” or the hyperpop influences of “Dr Satan.” He also incorporates more collaborations on the project, like the aforementioned YOUR ANGEL, who appears on several other tracks, no wave experimentalist Brutus VIII and even Lil Yachty, an artist whose transition from rap to psychedelic rock reflects the reverse of Rattigan’s transition.

The Front Bottoms drops the electronic pop elements that they experimented with on their last album — In Sickness & In Flames — one by one as they reveal You Are Who You Hang Out With. They power through poppier indie ballads like “Clear Path” and uncharacteristically calmer tracks like “Paris” until all that’s left before the final two tracks are the stuttering wails on the bridges of “Brick.” As the album loses the electronic edge, Sella often sings in a broken, out-of-time harmony, creating autotune-generated dissonance acoustically.

The bedroom pop poetry of Rattigan’s previous releases is traded away track by track for less thematically dense and lyric-heavy ones, opting instead to use his singing more for remixed samples than storytelling. While he fits his vocals surprisingly well to the stoner sad boy rap sound he’s transitioned to — somehow summoning some sentimental sensuality on bars like “And I can take it slow, suckin’ on your toes / Step into my mouth as I look into your soul” in “bb put on deftones” — his lyricism still leaves something to be desired on tracks like “Rock n Roll Dreams,” which sounds less like wordplay than word vomit.

The Front Bottoms maintains their talent for Midwestern musical storytelling, but these stories feel distinctly more personal as the record goes on, in large part owing to the vocals that narrate them becoming less and less electronically mixed. Midwest emo’s characteristic mundanely devastating lyrics are littered through each song; verses like “‘You never knew trust,’ / You say with your arms around me / Like it isn’t obvious” from “Punching Bag” and “This is the fear I was born into / Somehow affects me still today” from “Not Joking” still pierce me through the heart. And then, of course, there are the distinctly The Front Bottoms out-of-pocket lines, like “The name of this band was gonna be Mass Shooter / But the tone felt too spot-on” from “Fake Gold.”

In each album, it’s with the penultimate track that they crystallize most — well, third-to-last for LOVE + POP, but its last track is more of an outro than an album closer. “Batman” starts with the sad yet sweet strums of Sella’s acoustic. They bring about a nonsensical nostalgia within me, and I can hear him take a breath before he begins: “Batman covers his face when I take the picture.”

It’s silly for a second, because why would Batman need to cover his face if he already wears a mask — but Sella explains that “He doesn’t wanna put a curse on himself / He doesn’t wanna put a curse on us either,” his singing so somber it surrenders the silliness to a sudden sadness.

Rattigan’s slow, slightly raspy singing returns in “I feel truth inside of u,” a track so instantly reminiscent of classic Current Joys that my heart nearly skipped a beat. After an intro of cold, grungy guitar plucks and slow drumbeats, he asks a subject, or possibly himself: “Are you aware you are an artist?”

It’s a shattering return to form because the track is preceded by Rattigan discordantly screaming “Rock n roll dreams” — but Rattigan casts the identity aside in the command of “cut your hair and let the time slip.”

As Uychich drives the song forward past the Batman story on his set, Sella addresses an ex, or maybe his audience, back in that out-of-time, slightly out-of-tune self-harmony — “You don’t have to try so hard to not see me around / ’Cause if it’s irritating to you, the way I choose to sing / So broke down, so hyper, so sensitive.” He screams out at the end of the chorus: “Truth is I have always been / Sort of an embarrassment / You are who you hang out with / Fake gold on your sensitive skin.”

As the drums cut out for the second and final stanza past Rattigan’s commands, he dejectedly addresses himself — “I’m on my phone, I think I’m ugly / Nothing to hold me back from nothing” — but brings the subject back to muse on what both these bands find at the end of the agony of existence in intimacy: “But there is more than endless suffering / Inside your pores when you touch me / Then I feel truth inside of you / Then I feel truth inside of you.”

I was expecting a certain sadness from these albums — a catharsis that I’ve only felt from these artists. But these are not The Front Bottoms or Current Joys that helped me at my most despondent. Both use their records to muse on external influences and how they change identity — how they change artists. Whether intimacy improves us or industry institutionalizes us — You Are Who You Hang Out With or “all is fair in love and pop” — allows experimentation as the only insurgence.

Rattigan transforms the mantra “You are the reason, my heart broke behind my back” on his final song into a ten-minute house track — taking the pain, the reason that’s poured into all of his past work, and metamorphosing it into something unrecognizable, something beautiful. When The Front Bottoms states on the final track “Finding your way home,” “You gotta go / If that means / Running far away / I’ll let you know,” he’s telling us that a return to form doesn’t mean a return to home. You don’t know if it’s just stress or the little bit of gluten that contaminates Cottage Inn pizzas that’s turning your stomach in knots, and the local chain closed so long ago that you’re forgetting the taste — and you can never go back. And people got hurt, and you never want that to happen again.

But there are always new ways for the world and the people around us to be beautiful, for artists and audiences to see that. The Front Bottoms and Current Joys aren’t some “sad boy” sellouts because they have refrained from overtly depressing music; they’re evolving artists. The Front Bottoms’s newer, easygoing aura would be lovely for night drives, and Current Joys’s high-energy experimentalism would make some great music for a morning run. The Front Bottoms can warm you up through winter and spring; Current Joys can mellow you out in summer and fall. And for the intimacy that always existed, The Front Bottoms is moshing and messy make-outs, and Current Joys is slow dancing in the shadows and expressions of eros in the dark — letting just gentle curves and hands light the way. I have grown since the time I first listened to these artists. I think I can allow them to do the same.

Digital Culture Beat Editor Saarthak Johri can be reached at [email protected].

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