If the title of Crocodiles’ second album is a thin euphemism for finality — an unimaginative but probably fair estimation, I think — then that’s as much of a corner as this band is willing to cut. From the caustic lyrics to its high-octane delivery of electroclash and punk rock scorchers, Sleep Forever doesn’t beat around the bush. Having snagged a sliver of the limelight around the same time that fellow southern California ruffians Crystal Antlers, HEALTH, and No Age were turning heads with similarly brash, prismatic garage rock mutations, Crocodiles have regrouped after the lukewarm response to their debut and realigned their focus, taking on some weighty themes with pointed observations all channeled through a hard-line approach to studio recording.
The band sets off with teeth gnashing, launching into the obvious crowd-pleaser “Mirrors” with searing electric guitars and an energetic synth pattern that wouldn’t sound inappropriate at a pep rally. Even more impressive is the tasteful restraint that singer Brandon Welchez employs while everything else is rushing along at 60 miles per hour; he never overextends his voice, even when delivering a zinger (perhaps to his critics?) like, “You admire your reflection staring back at you from pools of shallow prose/ But when you meet yourself in mirrors you will know that you’ve done nothing of your own.” Whether intentionally or not, the song actually presents an interesting duality, showcasing the band’s flair for whipping up a memorable song structure while undercutting those same winning elements with very personal lyrics that seem to let on a shrewd understanding of the tenuous or always flip-flopping nature of the market to which their product happens to be subject.
And despite the apparent respite his assailants (perhaps said market?) unwittingly minister by enacting upon what Welchez perceives as sheer ignorance, his smirking self-satisfaction can’t seem to quell a sense of victimization or displacement. Implicating the songwriter with a first-hand experience of his subject matter is always a bit risky, but there is too much going on here not to chew over; up until this point, he’s been “crucified” at the hands of his addressees, and he seems to have taken it in stride. Yet this composure can’t mask his defeatist outlook for long, as the very next song, “Stoned to Death,” finds him bemoaning with hangdog passivity the impassability of similarly oppressive external forces. “The whole world is an ocean here to suck you down/ The whole world is an ocean laughing while you drown,” he flatly comments.
All the same, however, he (or he whose voice Welchez has assumed) seems pretty accustomed to receiving the short end of the stick. The chorus of the title track relates his self-awareness in that regard: “The sky sometimes is so unkind/ First, it rains and then it shines/ When it smiles on my face/ Its clouds all seem so out of place.” He certainly isn’t in the minority, as indie rock is glutted with killjoys, but the interminable cynicism seen here does at times anticipate some alleviation in — of all things — death, evidently more literal than figurative. Death — or at least the overhanging certainty of it — has suited itself throughout the ages as a sufficiently imposing muse, and here it seems to have energized the band toward devoting to its representation a source of relief. Not with eyes cast upward in the vein of old spirituals nor with an irremediable despondency that might give parent coalitions reason to protest, but rather with a persistent consciousness of what for most is a cold, hard reality not often contemplated. “Sleep Forever” and “Billy Speed” both reveal this, but, most conspicuously, “Girl in Black” finds Welchez wholly entranced and finally unencumbered, his immortalization of the titular female calling to mind the thematic density of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.
It’s easy to read into all of this — a malicious public’s all-out attacks as the ongoing narrative, and, more noticeably, the alleged means of escape — as a self-portrait of the quintessential misunderstood or unappreciated artist. And yet, musically, Sleep Forever doesn’t strike me as if it was as much of an investment emotionally. Whatever punches songs like “Hollow Hollow Eyes” and “Billy Speed” might have theoretically dispensed feel pulled, as if they were manufactured from the bottom up. Aside from “Girl in Black” and snoozer “All My Hate and My Hexes Are For You,” the band speeds along at full throttle, but it all sounds like a very controlled chaos, as if the dynamics of each song have become more imperative on paper than in execution. The studio wizardry of producer (and one half of techno duo Simian Mobile Disco) James Ford is likely responsible for this step-by-step, anesthetized feel; the high-end, squeaky-clean production domesticates what could have been a raw and unsparing complement to the hard-hitting lyrics.
Fundamentally, Crocodiles play pretty straightforward punk rock. That’s not noteworthy in itself, but their sound is nothing if not accessible, and, what with the grandiose feel of just about every hit single streaming across contemporary radio, songs like “Mirrors” and “Hearts of Love” could probably nuzzle their way into some steady airplay. And regardless, Crocodiles have enjoyed their fair share of major league success now. Which ultimately raises the question: Why so much outward-bound cynicism?
After No Age offered up mad props in a Stereogum feature a few years back, Crocodiles quickly became a topic that sparked incessant scuttlebutt, the gist of that early conversation (probably unfairly) revolving around the band’s potential. But that same conversation is what has brought Crocodiles to this point, and Sleep Forever, if anything, is an assurance of their staying power; they could probably get away with releasing this same record throughout the remainder of their career. But if they are to validate any of the anxiety that their lyrics apparently reflect, they’ll need to come up with something much more charged. The whole world may indeed be an ocean, but at the moment it’s more concerned with sucking down those responsible for work much more polarizing than this.