I could settle this review up in the first sentence, arguing that musically A History of Hygiene is the point where GBV, Wire, and the Tall Dwarfs finally converge, that it’s going to be catnip to anyone who ticks even two of those three boxes. But there’s a lot more snaking around the edges of this record than would be covered by filing it next to Alien Lanes, even more than I think I really want to admit to myself. It’s scary to plumb this record to the bottom, to get past the endless out-of-key singalongs and chewy guitar interplay, because the obscurity that The Stevens trade in (metareferences, 90-second songs, unprepossessing vocals, encyclopedic knowledge of lo-fi pleasure centers) hides the poor listener from a hard, bare, handsoap-smelling wall of supreme, searching discomfort. If you ever wanted to hear a record that carries the sensibility but not the sentiment of “All My Hollowness To You” across 24 songs, then this is for you, but I don’t think that’s a feeling anyone wants to carry home with them. What this record does is smuggle that feeling into your living room (cf. the record cover), and like the thing in the corner of Amedee’s living room, the discomfort will expand until it takes you away with it.
One key pop hit here starts with “I’m bouncing on my own regret/ It’s like a ball beneath my brain” and another is about the Challenger spacecraft crash. This record is basically a world where nearly everything is Tobias Funke, cameras off, expressionless, grasping; A History of Hygiene is a parade of dead ends, a suburb of cul-de-sacs, produced by two songwriters equally in touch with their powers as they are with their uncertainty and impotence, be it beta male self-flagellation or emotional voyeurism. “Scared of Other Men” isn’t indicative, but it tells it straight; instead of the Nice Guys of OkCupid superiority that an opening line like “nice guys finish last” might imply, the song rolls up to crumple as an ode to desperate ungrounded fear by the time the chorus rolls around. The fright is no longer just a problem of being around when burly jocks go out “starting fights at night,” but of being trapped within the brute awareness that bigger, stronger men exist, full stop. It’s a song allergic to reality. (Other men are just one source of distress, but it reoccurs; check when “Travelator” pulls out the line “I’ll run you down in my cool machine/ ‘Cause I know/ And I care” in relation to an observed object. Like, a travelator is very different to what the Reid brothers would be riding on if they were chasing a lady. They would be riding a motorbike.)
In other places, A History of Hygiene is an essay on the fear of getting too deeply involved in anything, even having a good time. Whether it’s a teenage freakout at Turpin Falls or a family holiday as a stockbroker at Elpho Beach, it’s all just a trap, where “They’ll teach you how to swim/ Hold your hand and drag you in.” Naturally, the vignette these songs sandwich explains that “the trail of debt leads to the family home.” The greatest moment of intimacy comes in “The Long Vacation” after “Lying next to you/ Sleeping with the TV on,” Our Singer wakes up to finding out an embassy has been bombed. Nothing’s working out here, past, present, or future.
When this intractable confusion is applied to less intimate situations, the anxiety becomes shared and public. “College Theme” frames a woman having a crisis in public, but while she’s wishing she had a cigarette, the narrator unselfconsciously checks her out, like “Street Hassle;” the subject of a woman trying to sort out her own life becomes a site for other people’s excitement, be it sexual or moral. The kind of jawdroppingly blasé-but-not-blasé “Red Ribbon” is basically a screenshot of emotional stasis; in a magazine, Our Singer “Saw a picture of a dead girl/ I didn’t mind.” Trapped between wanting to feel yet not registering a feeling, he turns the page without thinking about it, but it feels implicit that he’s been deadened by all of the anonymous images of dead women he’s seen before (“Oh I didn’t know her/ But I could’ve known her”). When after the chorus twinned guitar solos argue it out (one thin and indecisive, the other scabrous), a whole world of tension lights up, flickers, and fades off. Page turned, sure, but nothing’s been resolved.
Much of A History of Hygiene works as a kind of quarantine process, taking these awkward, difficult, intractable situations and placing them in isolation, spreading out the variables one by one to better understand them. In this way, perspectives aren’t privileged all that much, but when they are, it’s only in the way that, say, early Smog made a documentary out of male failure; Callahan brought us with him as he leered to see why the leering was there and how horrible it felt to be in the situation where one found themselves doing that in the first place. This kind of forensic songwriting is pretty much the confessional (James Taylor, not St. Luke’s) songwriting that postmodernism asked for, removing the absolute subject and throwing the magic conch shell of perspective around like a haywire lighthouse to whoever the light falls on. Check “Restaurant/E Maj,” where even in a restaurant, getting the breakup talk, the total point of view is abdicated: “She’s saying/ All the things I don’t want to hear/ Staring into my beer/ Peeling off the label/ I’ll leave when I’m able… I know it’s been rough for her!” Again, if there’s an emotion to be had, the guitars play it out: solos clash, things resolve into a hungover blur, and we move into “Travelator,” where our narrator goes scoping for “All the angels/ Who are falling to heaven.” Of course, on the travelator, he’s moving in place, standing still.
With songwriting, we get to see the world fresh by putting on someone else’s eyes as far as we can manage to jam them down over ours. Beyond that, though, the references the songwriter draws upon are always reduced to mere objects within the blunt framework of the lyric (things come to life in a song, but they never live, etc.), and so whenever a song is written, someone somewhere is getting sold out and sold short. The astonishing thing about the way that A History of Hygiene deals with the knottiness of one’s relationships to just about everyone and everything (themselves, women, other men, the future) is that The Stevens barely ever take the blowtorch off themselves, while still being so rich with perspective, awareness, and detail; basically, they handle that blowtorch like an engraver. Songs with less than a dozen lines contain entire frozen worlds of panic, confusion, and indifference, adding up to a vast, deft statement of how two songwriters really have no fucking idea what to do, but a complete idea of what that means. When “Skelton vs. Silicon” quotes “Street Fighting Man” with “What’s a poor boy to do/ But grow his hair and learn irony,” The Stevens underline how that’s not the way they chose to go about things. This is more important than that.
At the same time (and I’ve avoided stressing this), it’s also the kind of record that two decades of hit-it-and-quit-it indie rock since Bee Thousand never got around to making, the one that shows you can have it all by cranking out perfect tunes while actually saying something meaningful. The logic of those albums was that if you blinked and missed something, something as good would come up next; here, blink and you really miss something. The Stevens don’t color too far off the map of their musical forebears (like I said, there are tunes), but this is a multi-story carpark next to a drawing of a Vespa in terms of substance; the complexity, empathy, and imagination here leaves most of their contemporaries for dead. Writing perfectly ugly pop songs here isn’t just a vehicle for pop’s own sake, but for something searching, weird, personal, and vital. I’m excited about rock music again, because here the means match the ends, the whole coheres, and the depth feels limitless. Like most questions on the thornier issues of how power dynamics function, this album is all at once action, question, answer, and response, and leaves things exactly as gloriously, horribly muddy as they should be. Everyone gets dirty. Perfect.