I first noticed Maxwell Stern from a pleasant, unassuming tweet that somehow snuck into my usually gloomy feed. Stern’s tweet said something about not really wanting fame but wanting that low-key 12:30 am talk show slot, and he said he’d wear the “best T-shirt I got.” I was set back by how earnest and otherworldly chill it sounded, so I had to search him out to see if it was all a play-act for clicks. It wasn’t. Stern’s debut record, The Impossible Sum, out now on Lauren Records, is a relaxed, honest, deeply felt exploration of what it means to be a feeling, caring human in our time of incessant gaslighting and doom scrolling. It plays like prose, and it feels like a sigh of relief.
Impossible Sum could easily be called an indie rock or folk-rock record, but Sterns’ roots are a little more histrionic. For example, he’s played in a group called Timeshares, where the vocals are more likely to be yelled than crooned. His main group is called Signals Midwest, and it checks all the boxes of third-wave emo. Play a random track from Signals Midwest, and you can almost smell the sweat of a cramped basement show, and you can hear the vocals chords rip and shred.
Stern took a turn with Impossible Sum, though. The wonderfully light track, “Shiny Things”, encompasses acoustic guitar, slide guitar, and bouncy bass, all while spreading the well-worn but always welcome “Notice the world around you for once, you fool!” message. “Never Ending Equals Sign” ambles on light keys and acoustic strums while Stern rolls out a narrative of a loving going away party. You can almost see Stern cry-smiling through the lyrics, “..and I pass out little slivers of myself.”