As recently as last year, So Stressed were a ferocious post-hardcore trio. Now, inspired by the contentment love brings, they make blithe, breezy, and unapologetically melodic pop music.
“Contentment has either no need of artistic expression or few resources for it,” observed the critic Clive James. “In that regard, all the great art we know of carries within its compass a guarantee that its creator is not content.” It may be a liability, then, that So Stressed seem so happy. The Sacramento rock band’s new album, Pale Lemon, is a full-throated celebration of an enduring relationship—one that’s not euphoric so much as stable, tranquil, and satisfying. Most great love songs are about wanting or losing; having means happiness, and happiness tends to write white on the page. You can hardly fault the band for enjoying healthy relationships. But making that contentment interesting is the daunting challenge this record sets out to meet.
So profound is the fulfillment expressed on Pale Lemon that it has occasioned a radical transformation of the band’s sound. As recently as last year’s Please Let Me Know, So Stressed were a ferocious, turbulent post-hardcore trio that seemed at home among the mosh pits of suburbia. Now they make pop music that is blithe, breezy, and unapologetically melodic, rejuvenated by pedal steel guitar and flourishes of kalimba. Their new album shares more of an affinity with Pavement or the Wrens than with Spazz or Dystopia; “Miniature Flag” even features a sprightly flute solo, a choice that almost veers into yacht-rock territory. This is the sound of a punk band with nothing left to scream about. So Stressed have traded in their sleeveless denim jackets for blue blazers and Hawaiian shirts.
It is a fascinating reinvention, and one rendered successful by the versatility of their songwriting. “Cream & Gold” has the pleasant, languid mood of a summer heatwave, adrift in the slow twang of electric guitar and Morgan Fox’s listless, somnambulant vocals; the brief melodica solo that swells midway through it is an inspired and lovely touch. “Very Long Cloth” offers a great deal more intensity, but its soaring back-and-forth chorus and anthemic verve push the song closer to mid-2000s indie rock than to the band’s former punk severity—it’s more buoyant enthusiasm than feral squall.
This, of course, accords with Pale Lemon’s theme of romantic harmony. One line in “Very Long Cloth” is a clear thesis: “The things that you’ve done/The things that you do /Always ensure that I love you.” A sentiment like this is difficult to quote without sounding mawkish. The affection expressed throughout the record—earnest, sincere, and unflaggingly devout—would make any lover blush, but the lyrics rarely lapse into greeting-card cliché, despite their undisguised passion. These are honest confessions of a feeling that can be hard to articulate aloud: “I’m so thankful that you are here”; “You are my home”; “I’ve never been so close to anything before”; “Right now I don’t want for anything else”; “I couldn’t be here if you weren’t here”; “I miss you when I sleep because I don’t dream.” Each of these lines comes from a different song. This is the ardor that courses through the album—and it rings utterly true.
If the contentment at the heart of Pale Lemon bristles with some other emotion, it’s fear—fear of being discontent again or, more precisely, of screwing it all up. Abiding love always bears a faint trace of danger, because if it feels that good, for that long, you become desperate to hold onto it. So Stressed understand this peril. Pale Lemon is a record of happiness fraught around the edges with anxiety: “We’re standing on thin ice,” Fox sings on “Snowshoer,” the album’s emotional climax. “I am shivering but it is nothing new.” On “Onion Paper” he lays it bare: “If I’m scared it’s because I don’t want to end up without.” That’s the thing about contentment: It’s always under threat—by time, by crisis, or by death.
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