Posted on December 3rd, 2018
[as seen on Talkhouse]
Hear First is Talkhouse’s series of album premieres. Along with streams of upcoming albums—today’s is Mister Goblin’s Final Boy—we publish statements from artists and their peers about the mindsets and impressions that go into, or come out of reflection on, a record. Here, Sadie Dupuis (Speedy Ortiz, Sad13) shares her thoughts on men in rock and her friend Sam Woodring’s debut solo EP, which you can also listen to right here.
—Annie Fell, associate editor, Talkhouse
What’s it like to be a man in rock? There was a microsecond when I thought I might know, back when my band played all-basement, all-boy tours with the musically kindred East Coast friends who comprised Exploding In Sound’s early roster. In the intervening almost-decade, women take up a lot more space, both at EiS and in rock at large; at a parallel pace, a lot of those aforementioned all-boy bands have called it quits (or called it hiatus, a rose by any other name). Many of these bands’ lyrics were philosophical, conscious, aware of and pushing back against the political context in which they were released—I’m thinking of bands like Krill, Grass Is Green, LVL Up, Big Ups, and Two Inch Astronaut—which is why it’s no shock that many of my ex-tourmates have gone into community organizing, or social work, or other crucial roles outside of the music world. But for the most part, no matter how woke, my frontmen friends (maybe Ted Leo excluded) rarely had to write or speak about their gender in a substantive way. It’s a luxury that, as A Woman In Rock™, I’ve resented.
So I’m tickled that Mister Goblin, the newest solo project from Two Inch Astronaut’s guitarist and lead singer Sam Woodring, has chosen Final Boy as the title of its debut EP. Of course it’s a play on the horror trope of the “final girl,” in which the slasher flick ends after a triumphant woman outsmarts the killer, surviving at least until the next sequel. But Sam goes hard on a double meaning, and I can’t help thinking his title’s tongue-in-cheek, a reference to the shifting demographics in our scene. Of the bands that filled up Exploding in Sound’s first dozen-or-so releases, Sam’s pretty darn close to the final boy.
Not like Two Inch’s music was exemplary of outdated rock machismo. Cello, barbershop harmonies, and some sensitive-ass songs hallmarked their prolific discography, which was uniformly great in both the songwriting and playing. But Mister Goblin as a solo project doesn’t have to adhere to the sonic constraints of a band—folk fingerpicking and nu metal-lifted chorus and drum machines happily cohabit here—and as a solo artist, Sam only has to speak for himself. It’s so unusual for a man in rock to even reference what it’s like to be one—the implications of your gender, the space you occupy, and whose space you might be taking up—and I think that’s why Sam’s interrogative lyrics betray a self-conscious insecurity, as on “Nothing You Do (Happens),” when he sings, “nothing that I do happens to you, or anyone for their entertainment, or any reason.” He seems to grapple with whether, in this day and age, anyone should be listening to him at all.
But I’m listening to Mister Goblin, and I’m glad you are too. These songs make twists and turns and hit all the right unexpected notes to build to a chorus that you wake up with in your head, again, for the fifth day in a row, and then you’re pissed about it, and then you have to listen fives times more. Lyrically, there’s a wonderful narrative sensibility, storytelling that lights up on small, color-saturated details (“time of year the tomato plants are wilting/and you get ready to join the family plot” on “Be Right There”). But they also delight in associative punnage, like “skip to my losing” off “Night Lighting.” Creepy characters fill the scenes, hand in hand with that genre buff title; these are sweet and gentle songs, but not a single one goes by without death, dying, blood, vampires, chupacabras, or Lucifer. And that’s OK, because even with sweet people in the world trying to do the right thing, a lot of the planet is pretty dark.
A lot of that darkness is because of our disappointment—not just women’s disappointment, everyone’s disappointment—in the men who were once our cultural vanguards and heroes. But as much as I love Woman World, it’s not like everyone with a coffee mug reading “Male Tears” actually wants a whole gender to be obsolete. It’s just that we don’t want EVERYONE ELSE OTHER THAN MEN to be saddled with the burden of talking about issues like consent and inclusivity and privilege. We don’t want to be the only ones trying to do better.
So those insecurity-signaling Mister Goblin lyrics are a relief, a signal of self-awareness I don’t hear too often, and a sign that non-men aren’t the only people questioning and trying. “Fixing it is a lonely thing to do, and it hurts as bad as a pat on the back for trying to be good,” Sam sings on “Fixing the Jokes.” And maybe it does hurt, but to me it feels like a good omen that he’s trying, too.