Canadian post-punk outfit Preoccupations’ story is built on new beginnings. They first emerged under the moniker Viet Cong after the dissolution of bassist/vocalist Matt Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace’s band Women and the death of guitarist Christopher Reimer. But the new name would raise its own share of issues. While their self-titled debut received good-to-glowing reviews, the name itself came with an ugly history of racism and the band was accused of cultural appropriation — despite that never being their intent. Following criticism, the band admitted their fault in judgment and changed their name to Preoccupations.
Most bands don’t get the chance to make a self-titled record a second time. If you count Women’s 2008 debut, Preoccupations will be Flegel and Wallace’s third eponymous record together. While Flegel’s guttural croons and guitarists Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen’s jagged riffs are all still there, they’re being implemented in a new way. And, the new name is quite an apt descriptor for where the band is now: Preoccupations the album is Preoccupations the band dealing with their emotional preoccupations. These are songs about the thoughts that plague your mind, distracting you from what’s right in front of you.
Understanding Preoccupations is easiest when setting it against Viet Cong. That record was marked by claustrophobic arrangements. The drums boomed like they were being filtered through a concrete wall, thudding off-kilter against the murky guitar distortion. It was the sound of a band working their way through the void, trying to find some light to lead them out. Preoccupations does away with the murkiness, sounding remarkably clear in contrast to its predecessor. But this newfound clarity doesn’t bring peace, it sheds light on new insecurities. It’s like coming out of the water and seeing the shore on fire. Just being able to identify the issues in front of you doesn’t mean they’re resolved.
Opening track “Anxiety” starts the band out on the journey of self-realization as Flegel bellows, “So cryptic and incomprehensible/ Encompassing anxiety.” For anyone who has suffered from anxiety, the song is a startlingly open and accurate description of the inescapable feeling. He describes it as a “blunt humiliation” and feeling like he’s spinning in a vacuum. Flegel taps into that helplessness with uncomfortable directness. The blurting synthesizer drones underscoring his monotone capture the blasé aura of going through the motions. Wallace’s drumming is restrained here, a marked departure from his tumbling rhythms on Viet Cong. A simple kick and snare pattern can be just as effective as manic polyrhythms when trying to translate intense nervousness. Anxiety isn’t always an anxiety attack; it’s something that’s lived with, constantly lurking in the background like a steady pulse.
As such, this feeling persists on the next track, the aptly named “Monotony”. It’s a wink at the camera when he repeats the bridge with the phrase, “this repetition’s killing you/ It’s killing everyone.” Later, on “Zodiac”, he sneers, “You can’t be happy everyday,” which feels like a total understatement on a Preoccuptations record. The burden of clarity is reemphasized a couple lines later when he confesses, “To be in a complete state of consciousness is completely intolerable.” A lot could be read into lines like these about drugs or other means of coping, but the point is the lack of coping itself.
Placed in the middle of the record is the 11-minute “Memory”. Conventionally, a track like this might be saved for the end of a record. Putting something so massive at a record’s center speaks to Preoccupations’ bold spirit and manic energy, a centerpiece from which every other track sprouts. Flegel’s nihilistic barrage maintains itself for the first three minutes before an instrumental breakdown effortlessly transitions into the second wave of the track, with Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner coming in to take over vocal duties. While he’s not exactly here to cheer everyone up, he does act as an abstract voice of reason. Boeckner adds a newfound lightness to the track as he describes a moment of vulnerability and caps it off with stage directions: “End scene.” Flegel and Boeckner’s voices intertwine poignantly, singing, “Erasing your memory/ Our particles collide by candlelight.” It’s the push and pull of depression, wanting to be better and wanting to give up and wallow. Everything settles down into ambient noise for the last four minutes, forcing the listener to sit with their realizations.
It’d be easy to keep picking through every line on this record and how it relates to the feeling of personal crisis, but the band’s intentions become remarkably clear after “Memory”. For some, these songs might be hard to listen to because of their overt handling of such a sensitive topic. But it’s worth noting that it’s not a hopeless affair. By the time the band gets to closing track “Fever”, there are some steps made forward. It’s a realization upon waking, seeing that same darkness in the world and opting to not choose fear. It’s not a clean break; depression never is. However, there is progress. This could be said for the band as a whole as they continue to advance beyond their past. They’ve created a startling document of anxiety and mental exhaustion. It’s beautiful art, and hopefully it’s a next step toward the peace so sought after throughout the record.
Essential Tracks: “Anxiety”, “Fever”, and “Memory”