Posted: by The Editor
Total Downer’s Caretaker opens with a body horror revenge fantasy that plays out so quickly, you probably won’t have time to register how gruesome it is on the first listen. Or the second. Or until you read the lyrics (I won’t spoil all the lurid details for you, but the punishment truly does fit the crime). The Cleveland group’s compact yet complex debut record doesn’t mince words. That’s right, they’re from Cleveland. As in Ohio. I too was fooled by lead vocalist Andy Schumann’s voice, which is more than a little reminiscent of Gareth Paisey of Los Campesinos! circa 2010. That’s not where the similarities end, as Total Downer share the British tweemo ensemble’s affinity for crushing earnestness, scream-along hooks, and witty one-liners that punch all the way up.
Their targets range from fake-woke “socially liberal/fiscally conservative” types on the anti-gentrification anthem “Cruel” to the greedy, tip-jar-skimming bosses on “Big Man” to the “Hollywood perverts” on standout track “Taylor Lautner.” An ode to the titular former child star, “Taylor Lautner” packs a thoughtful and thrilling analysis of the double-edged sword of desirability into two rip-roaring minutes. Schumann seeks security in objectification and in conforming to ’00s-era beauty standards, but also realizes that there’s no such thing as the “safer body” that he yearns for. Still, he dreams of getting ripped and joining Team Jacob in a cathartic fantasy of helping Lautner kick the asses of Hollywood higher-ups that prey on young actors. Like much of Caretaker, it’s an outcry against those who use their authority to exploit and abuse rather than protect.
A similar thread runs through the tender “Thank You for Listening,” which finds fleeting solidarity in its softer side. “There’s a day boys forget to love / it’s sudden and it’s subtle,” Schuuman sings, reaching out to an old friend and longing for the vulnerability of their childhood before they were told that boys don’t cry. There’s a sense that, had they not needed to form protective shells against any emotional expression that could be construed as weak, the harsh awakenings of adolescence and early adulthood might have hurt less, that the pain would’ve been eased in the long run if fully feeling it had been more acceptable.
A record with this level of sincerity could easily get bogged down in sentimentality or become tooth-achingly saccharine; contrarily, Total Downer’s emotional openness unlocks their whip-smart sense of humor and gives Caretaker its shining moments of levity. “Daddy’s telling me I need to get a new job / Why do I need a job besides being so cute?” cries Schumann, over a skittering ska-punk instrumental guaranteed to appeal to fans of JER’s most recent album or any Jeff Rosenstock project. “Star Rek’t” nervously navigates a Star Trek-based flirtation, while “Dolly Parton” offers tongue-in-cheek commentary on the disconnect between “Eat the Rich”-type stories and the capitalists who tell them. The post-punky “Shut Up” features a hilarious monologue about green juice that feels straight out of a Cheekface song in the best possible way.
“Falling in Love With You” has the riffy power pop magic of the first two Weezer albums (complete with karaoke-ready “ooh-wee-oohs”). Few love songs capture just how embarrassing love is–this one fully embraces the sappy self-humiliation of opening up your heart. We need more pathetic love songs. “Falling in Love With You” understands that dignified love is an oxymoron–that when love is real, it’s worth the embarrassment. Closer “Luis” is a platonic love song for friends both past and present that sees Schumann helping friends carry the weight of their suffering as well as his own. Friendship is a revolutionary force on Caretaker, and the most sacred bonds are ones forged through fire. These friends have inherited an uncaring world; the only way to get through it is by conjuring up the love they’ve been lacking and using it to care for one another.
Disappointing / Average / Good / Great / Phenomenal
Caretaker is out now.
Grace Robins-Somerville | @grace_roso
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