HELLMODE might be the first Jeff Rosenstock album to get a proper promotional cycle, but you don’t need a press quote to figure out it’s all about battling existential dread. First off: HELLMODE. Secondly, it’s a Jeff Rosenstock record, which means it serves as an attempt to take honest stock of his life and channel the kind of anxiety that never sticks to a single form; “the constant chaos keeps a brain a-rattlin’,” as he puts it on ‘GRAVEYARD SONG’. Reuniting with producer Jack Shirley to record the album at Hollywood’s EastWest Studios, where System of a Down laid down Toxicity, HELLMODE is as raw, furious, and anthemic as you might expect, but it’s also one of the loveliest and most affecting efforts Rosenstock has put out under his name. He’s still intent on releasing pent-up frustration in ways that urge you to sing along, but leaves more space for tender intimacy before each burst of catharsis.
Without tempering his anger toward destructive social systems, Rosenstock’s perpetual self-awareness turns an otherwise polished and straightforward record into a compelling one. While albums like 2018’s POST- and 2020’s NO DREAM balanced heartfelt moments with catchy songwriting and radical politics, HELLMODE finds him more conflicted, addressing his own participation in the systems he criticizes with a mix of real vulnerability and uncertainty. ‘HEAD’ rips through a tangle of neuroses as if 90 seconds is all any of us have left: “I am just an avatar of someone I’ve invented/ A messenger of certainties I’m trying to decode,” he begins before delivering a performance that’s both unhinged and impeccably controlled in tempo. Elsewhere, he lets things breathe, unburdening himself and allowing listeners to latch onto his words. “Speak/ Even if it feels weird/ Even if it feels weird to be yourself,” he sings to those convinced of “the redundancy of your POV” on ‘DOUBT’. The song is slow and repetitive to dreamy effect, but instead of drifting off that way, Rosenstock opts for another communal release: “You gotta chill out with the doubt!”
Self-doubt rattles through some of HELLMODE‘s most infectious power-pop moments, including early highlights ‘WILL U STILL U’ (“Will you still love me after I’ve fucked up?”) and ‘LIKED U BETTER’. “Creepin’ out the fog/ I start to sense that something’s wrong,” he sings on the latter, and that creeping dread takes on different dimensions as it spreads throughout the album. On ‘FUTURE IS DUMB’, the weight of it turns into numbness, an overwhelming sensation that the world doesn’t care or owe us shit. It returns on the upbeat ‘I WANNA BE WRONG’, where not even a gleaming synth solo can offset Rosenstock’s doomful concerns, and again on the ‘GRAVEYARD’, which starts out sparser before handing us another rousing chorus. It’s being in this contemplative mode – “Watching the world burst into flames for no reason/ Other than the fear that you were wrong about something – that then amplifies his command to “To get unstuck and let the sun/ Pull the flowers out of the mud.”
HELLMODE ends with a seven-minute epic called ‘3 SUMMERS’, but the album’s most poignant songs – the ones that really burn off any excess energy – aren’t necessarily the ones that sweep you away or rile you up. They can be calm and simple, like ‘HEALMODE’, an acoustic cut that finds Rosenstock taking a closer look around his LA neighbourhood before zeroing in on the romance that really makes it feel like home. Rosenstock spends much of HELLMODE sifting through solutions for those in distress (“Maybe listen to a Slaughter Beach, Dog record”), yet it excels not as a collection leveraging his role as a DIY punk hero, but one that embraces his invariably earnest, growing perspective. The world may be spiraling out of control, but the human need for togetherness and comfort remains constant, and nothing satisfies it better than directing it outward. HELLMODE achieves this as well as any previous Jeff Rosenstock album, but it also revels quietly in ways that make a little warmth seem bigger than the darkest chaos.