We first wrote about Chicago’s Young Jesus back in 2012 when they released their debut album Home, in what was a complimentary but not overly in-depth review that hinted at the band’s talents without delving too much into why we liked them. Over the subsequent years I have found myself returning to Home and the repeated listens have reinforced the recurring themes and characters, revealing what had appeared a strong indie-rock album to be something deeper, a carefully crafted and criminally underrated record which toed the line between traditional and concept album.
“I don’t want to write too much based on one single, but this seems to be going a step further than your standard indie-rock fare”
As hinted above, we were predisposed to hold this opinion. Home left us with some pretty high expectations for the band, in particular their writing and lead John Rossiter’s delivery. ‘G’ and the album trailer (see below) merely confirmed our suspicions. After spending some time with the full-length, it’s safe to safe that these feelings were justified.
Just as with Home, Grow / Decompose is not a traditional eleven-songs-with-three-singles record, but neither is it a full concept album. It’s something between the two, pinned together by a set of central themes and characters whilst escaping the pitfalls and constraints of a “concept album”. For this reason the album is reminiscent of Craig Finn’s writing, which to me is high praise indeed. The word ‘novelistic’ would come close if only Grow / Decompose didn’t bring to mind the very novels which play with the conventions of the form. Our preview mentioned David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest as a comparison and this seems to reach far further than the shared transvestic tendencies (of G / D’s Neil and IJ’s Tony Krause) cited as reasoning. Not only does the album have the same broad, scattered and vaguely cyclical structure as the novel, but Young Jesus’ music also shares Wallace’s metamodern style – a postmodern web of motifs and strange humour countered with a modernist sincerity and genuine sense of hope.
It’s not only in structure that Grow / Decompose brings to mind Infinite Jest. Their juxtaposition of bleak mental turmoil with buoyant (or at least fervent) emotion and hope is integral to the Young Jesus aesthetic. Again a parallel to The Hold Steady’s style, this combination provides a sense of depth that would be absent from something aligned purely to misery or joy. This makes the album, at least to my ears, very much a product of the twenty-first century. We aren’t always sad, or always happy, or always good or evil or apathetic or nihilistic or idealistic to the point of stupidity. We are all of these things and none of them and it can be hard work trying to fathom how to retain a sense of self while being in such a state of confusion. What I’m getting at is, like Infinite Jest, Grow / Decompose resists the temptation of satire and cynicism to paint real people stuck in this madness.
As the title describes so neatly, Grow / Decompose speaks of the familiar paths that human lives follow. Despite all the strangeness, the characters here are going through the age-old problems – depression, anxiety, identity crises, existential terror – the problems of being You and You alone, Molina’s “curse of a human’s life”. For all of the complexity of our existence, we are still locked in the atavistic pattern of life and death, everyone more or less condemned to the same mistakes and fears and joys that we as human beings have been experiencing for generations (“You don’t start clean,” tells the refrain of ‘Brothers’, “spines are twisting in the rings. This old tree, been around before you were born”). In this way the album is both pessimistic and hopeful, a statement that we seem unable to change for the better and a reminder that we are united by this monumental whammy. As Rossiter sings on ‘Oranges’: “She’s a believer in the relief / that we’re all receivers of suffering”.
Degeneration is a major theme and the whole record is imbued with an odd pleasure/pain relationship, accentuated with grotesque imagery. Take for example opener ‘EMP’: “So go ahead and search your chest, the slugs and inchworms know it best.” This brought to mind the book Threats by Amelia Gray, in which a man named David descends the spirals of grief after losing his wife. With death and decay quite literally pervading his house and life, David finds himself both terrified by his situation yet drawn towards some obscure peace with it, as if giving in to a dark and fungal siren. The characters on Grow / Decompose are similarly troubled and lonely, be they confused and unhappy with their identity (‘G’), saddled with unwanted children and gripped by overwhelming numbness (‘Oranges’) or using drugs and forming half-imagined relationships with television presenters (‘Slug’ and ‘Brothers’). Dissociated from others, they achieve the sort of heightened peculiarity of southern gothic hermits, existing within the confines of their own logic and physics, a world where the hope or possibility of connection or meaning flutters along rarely, staccato and unannounced.
The result is a manic-depressive relationship with their irregularity. On ‘Blood and Guts’ the character holds his weirdness aloft like a banner intended to confirm himself or terrify others, marching towards epiphany or entropy like Gray’s David. The title character in ‘Milo’, who sits somewhere near McCarthy’s Lester Ballard on the scale of Southern Gothic hermits, continues the perverse pleasure with the clear-eyed conviction of a serial killer, delighted by the gory truths of life and death. Milo is the depraved character, one who seems to have pushed past anxiety and apathy to realise his potential as a monster (“He paints his face and feels a brightness / glowing brighter inside / the cave he built out of the thorax / of the organist’s hide”). With his humanity stripped away he becomes a prophet who “sings the world as it’s shown”, the cyclical, elemental theme returning with its closing chant:
“All the birds singing
all the plants growing
all the wind blowing
all the bugs crawling
all the birds breaking
all the plants dying
all the wind crawling
and the blood flowing
and the waves breaking
with the birds singing
and the plants speaking
to the wind dying”
It seems important that the end of the final track ‘Dirt’ shares the same chords and drone as the opener, so that the end loops back to the beginning (another similarity to Infinite Jest). If played on repeat Grow / Decompose never ends, a musical ouroboros of well-worn paths that are both doomed and blessed and quite possibly all we have.