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Proper. - I Spent the Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better Music Album Reviews

The Brooklyn band's explosively verbal, shapeshifting, and snarky emo-pop explores how intersectional identities move within predominantly white spaces.

When Erik Garlington changed his band’s name from Great Wight to Proper., his fans immediately assumed the stylization was an Into It. Over It. homage. Considering his rich history of playing emo inside baseball, they could be forgiven. After all, Great Wight included a song about a life-changing Tiny Moving Parts basement show on 2017’s The Suburbs Have Ruined My Life, and while that album title could pass for a Wonder Years lyric, I Spent the Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better comes from an actual Wonder Years lyric. The reality is that “Proper.” is a reference to the one topic that always takes priority in Garlington’s lyrics: “We got it from white people telling us, 'You talk white. You talk, like, real proper. One of your parents must be white!'” The subject matter hasn’t changed much from The Suburbs Have Ruined My Life—Garlington is still venting righteous frustration over the ways his band’s intersectional identities function in predominantly white spaces, but his view has expanded far beyond their local emo scene or Kansas City to encompass the near-entirety of American society.

Garlington has said he envisions Proper. as the realization of the extremely weird-but-apparently-real Max Bemis and Kanye West collaboration that occurred sometime during The Life of Pablo. Truth be told, there’s far more Say Anything than Kanye in Proper.’s explosively verbal, shapeshifting, and snarky emo-pop, which has earned apt comparisons to Modern Baseball and respect from Los Campesinos! As far as Kanye, Proper. share his tendency to, well, say anything and an insatiable grudge against higher education. As it did on The College Dropout, this tends to result in the rare moments where I Spent the Winter doesn’t quite land right.

On “Toby,” Garlington takes the perspective of a self-conscious high school senior who has no idea what they’re doing in college (“I was just a kid last year, now I’m planning my life out at 18”). He actually manages empathy for the kind of suburban Bible Belters who tormented him throughout his life, those that follow the path of least resistance into their 50s and lack the conviction to follow any ambitions that deviate from the norm—“I start a creative writing class next week/Maybe I’ll finish that novel I started at 20/God, I hope they like me,” he sings. Conversely, “IDFWA (Art School)” vents bile at his peers while also having the greatest number of lyrical clunkers (“You’re just not into politics/Unless it’s about weed/Then you’re a proletariat/Armed with sickle and bong”).

Yet “IDFWA” performs a necessary function as I Spent the Winter’s release valve, given the lifetime of interconnected indignities Garlington can recall at a moment’s notice. “I hope you don’t mind if I tell a few stories about my life,” he meekly asks on “Curtain’s Down! Throw In the Towel,” and every single slight comes under the microscope for reexamination, whether the humiliations are relatively minor (“Joined the band to play drums, they put me on fucking trombone”) or traumatic. “I just want other black kids to like me someday,” he sings as his sixth-grade self on “Lime Green Jheri Curl.” But he’s into Rocky Horror Picture Show and Dragonriders of Pern, which means “my white friends say the n-word more than me and that it’s okay because they’re blacker than me.” Then none of them show up to his birthday.

Trying to take in I Spent the Winter in one sitting, as the man once said, is way too much. In all likelihood, Garlington is trying to make the act of listening to Proper. as overwhelming as experiencing his life firsthand. As with Bemis’ most potent work, I Spent the Winter’s words writhe on the page, emitting the kind of radioactive energy that circulates when someone says something they know can never be taken back. “When you hear this you’ll call me ungrateful, but mom, it’s true,” he spits on “White Sheep,” a song that hinges on the chorus “I hate my family/Fucking hate my name.”

As with “Lime Green Jheri Curl” (“Am I broken/Am I an alien/I don’t think there’s anywhere I belong”), the cracked melodies and universal feelings of alienation in these hooks could be extracted from the most lily-white suburban Drive Thru Records CD, even if they’re attached to the extremely specific experience of Erik Garlington. It’s one of the many ways Garlington validates his choice to forgo college and/or “the military industrial complex” to cast his lot with an all-black emo band in Brooklyn, because this is the kind of music that created a real community for him—“There could be someone who looks just like me that needs to hear they’re not alone/Or at least they don’t have to be.” With the exception of the last Great Wight record, I can’t say I’ve heard anything quite like I Spent the Winter, and Proper. has made it their life’s work to make sure that’s no longer the case.

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