I’m writing this review mid-way through a six-pack in my bedroom at 12:30 at night, contemplating what to do with a romantic entanglement. I’m doing this because it’s the best way to appreciate The Affliction, a fantastic new album by new band Bare Mutants. Bare Mutants aren’t exactly rookies, as their members consist of several veterans of the Chicago music scene. Featuring meditations on guilt, regret, isolation, resentment, sometimes doubling down on those plights, The Affliction is the best drinking alone album in recent memory. The best part is that more often than not it offers redemption.
Bare Mutants is a band I struggle to maintain neutrality on, considering how my love for the member’s previous bands during my years in Chicago have shaped my perception of the musical world (I am on a first name basis with most of the band’s members). Jered Gummere of the Ponys, a band that nearly single handedly helped me survive four Chicago winters, may be the most prominent name. Also featured is Seth Bohn on bass, the drummer and emotional core of Mannequin Men, legends in Chicago who’ve struggled to break out nationally. Jeanine O’Toole of the 1900s, a band whose brand of deceptively muscular indie pop put dozens of more recognizable bands to shame, handles tambourines and backup vocals.
O’Toole and Gummere’s vocal harmonies are the true musical highlight of this album. Gummere, who drew incessant Richard Hell comparisons for the first half of his career, has now fully reinvented himself as a restrained baritone. O’Toole’s backing vocals become so instinctually tied to the album that you feel you must be hearing her when she’s nowhere to be found in the mix.
In fact, each of these members brings the strengths from their previous bands: Gummere brings the Ponys’ confident, informed songwriting, Bohn brings Mannequin Men’s the ability to cut deep and not pull any emotional punches for the sake of appearances, O’Toole brings the 1900s ability to find cheer and humor where it seems like there’s none to be found. Credit must also be given to Leslie Deckard who comes through in the clutch with organs, and Matt Holland, whose relentless drums that manage to keep the pace up on what would otherwise be an emotional slog.
The Affliction broadly covers a wasteland of emotions, and though most of the members of the band are in stable relationships or marriages, on songs such as “I Suck At Life,” “Inside My Head,” and “Devotion,” Bare Mutants prove uncannily able to identify with being alone, isolated, and thoroughly depressed. But as the album progresses, the band finds its true strength pulling themselves out of that muck -- they’re even better when pulling themselves out of the muck. Starting with O’Toole’s turn as lead singer on “Nothing Is Gold” and the sincere, funny “Cunt,” things start to pick up. After two tracks that find redemption in defiance of religious dogma, The Affliction comes to a head on “Scars,” which finds catharsis in the ability to move on, on the album’s last and best track.
While the songwriting can get quite repetitive at points, it’s difficult to dispute the confident, defiant maturity behind lyrics like “can you let your feelings go/ oh oh no /can you let your feelings grow” and “I know we can make it better / but I guess I have to see your way.” This album soundtracks the progression from the crash and burn of young adulthood into the reality of adult life, and makes it all seem survivable. That makes The Affliction not just a great album, but for many people like me, a necessary one.
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