I’ve been known to feel a bit down from time to time. I can be a bit hard on myself when I feel I’m not doing enough or trying hard enough in this crazy thing called life. But I don’t think I’ve ever been clinically depressed. I carry my share of anxiety and self-imposed guilt, but nothing that anyone should be concerned about. Hell, don’t we all deal with self-doubt and fear of failure at some point? How else do we push ourselves to do better if not for some existential fear nipping at our behinds?
But Preoccupations’ Matt Flegel, he’s on a whole other level when it comes to self-doubt, anxiety, and swimming in the deep, dark, and desperate waters known as depression(hell, the guy wrote a song called “Anxiety”.) Flegel, along with his bandmates Scott Munro, Daniel Christiansen, and Mike Wallace have been churning out jagged post-punk since 2013. They formed after the break-up of the indie band Women, of which singer/bassist Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace were members. The surprise success of their Cassette cassette EP led to the early 2015 release of their self-titled debut Viet Cong. That led to cancelled shows, broken arms, playing to crowds of 10 across the US, and then an eventual name change to Preoccupations. Their follow-up, another self-titled, showed all the drama and angst had worn on them, in-particular in Matt Flegel’s lyrics. Despite the dread conveyed through words, the music lightened up from their debut as Viet Cong. At times there was even a progressive quality that brought the songs up from the doldrums of self-loathing.
This leads us to New Material, the bands third full-length in three years. This Canadian post-punk band keep dialing up the light musically and dialing it down lyrically. The juxtaposition between the light and dark is what makes New Material so engaging and fascinating. You’ll either buy the ticket and take the ride or you won’t. I’ve purchased a year round pass.
“It’s an ode to depression,’ singer Matt Flegel says. “To depression and self-sabotage, and looking inward at yourself with extreme hatred.” There is no assuming here. There’s no theorizing where the band is going with these songs. It’s a concept record about falling apart with no needle and thread to sew yourself back together. But where lesser bands would romanticize being depressed and dealing with darkness and turn it into nothing more than some teen’s high school diary, Preoccupations makes it into a masterful and quite beautiful spiritual reckoning. “Espionage” captures beautifully the band’s love for Bauhaus, Joy Division, and even hints of Gary Numan, but adds a more muscular fist punching the air. Flegel’s vocals have historically been slathered in studio grit and layers of grey, but here those effects have been stripped away. This makes songs like “Decompose” and “Disarray” all the more engaging. There’s a real vulnerability that comes thru, especially in the latter track. The desperation of “Disarray” is disarming and pulls you in. The lilting guitar and steady heartbeat of a bass line works to drive the emotion along. “Manipulation” moves along like a some broken down machine attempting to start itself back up, while “Antidote” almost comes across as some 80s deep club remix. Flegel nearly comes across as upbeat in his delivery here as the drums beckon the dance floor ghosts.
Preoccupations have given in fully to the idea that you can’t escape the doom, so you might as well embrace it and see what happens. They entered the studio with no solid ideas, just dark vibes to go on. This record was built from the ground up with four guys hashing it out together, and Flegel added the vocals afterwards. “Finishing ‘Espionage’ was when I realized,” says Flegel. “I looked at the rest of the lyrics and realized the magnitude of what was wrong.”
Despite the doom and gloom, you can’t help but fall for the driving rhythms and pop-inflected anxiety of songs like “Solace” or the slow burn of “Doubt” with its Cure-like crawl to some doomed finale. In the slower moments there is a real Faith quality to the songwriting. “Compliance” feels almost new age-like, as if stumbling across some ancient temple dedicated to self-doubt in the middle of your subconscious. Seems like a very definitive period for this record.
New Material is the best thing Preoccupations have done. They’ve given in to the darkness, and instead of masking it they are fully embracing it. It seems there was no work around for Flegel this time. He committed to the doubt and anxiety he was working thru and let his bandmates inside. The result is the most upbeat form of self-therapy you’ll hear all year.
Social espionage has never sounded so inviting.
8.3 out of 10