Major Arcana is angry. It’s about the losses of the past, to the point of even sounding like the past — its angular, moody ’90s feel conjures the image of an overgrown punk hanging around a playground at night, drinking, smoking, wasting — but it’s also about repaying those who beat you. If you want to know a reason this record is special in spite of its obvious influences, here’s one: it could kick their asses. It’s more hardened than any slab of indie rock from the golden era, the result of knowing some honest-to-god assholes and wanting to immortalize their bad deeds in song. Oh, and how about its idea of love? It’s hardly indie-rock summer jam material: “I wanna be with somebody just like me / someone who laughs at a car crash rental.”
Speedy Ortiz are okay with sounding like the past. They pride themselves, and the Massachusetts scene as a whole, on playing the music they like, which leads to the “and fuck the rest” ethos that drives Major Arcana. But that’s not the best way of approaching it; comparing their sound to ’90s indie rock and its degenerate pal noise-rock is totally understandable, but makes their music come across as more vestigial than it actually is. Major Arcana is a little bit of everything without really sounding like any of it, using certain hallmarks to tell a contemporary parable about resilience. The most notable comparison has been Stephen Malkmus; think a latter-day Pavement song like “Shady Lane” where his knotty, exponentially ridiculous lyrics trace guitar lines until they die out. That’s something vocalist Sadie Dupuis is very capable of doing — before “Plough” enters its torrential conclusion, she twists a slight guitar riff around her pleas to “Stop shaking while you’re freaking the fuck out,” and on “Tiger Tank” her exhales are given the same treatment — but the reason for these little patterns is completely different. The point is that “Plough” deforms into that noisier passage of unleashed percussive hell, or that “Tiger Tank” has a rugged edge to it. Dupuis takes her words and sours them with this sinister sound, as if half the struggle is talking about it, the other half getting even.
Perhaps a more obvious influence on Speedy Ortiz’s tone is Unwound and their drain-circling noise rock; “Casper (1995)” has remnants of Leaves Turn Inside You built into it, a moody bassline from Darl Ferm navigating recurring guitar phrases that peak on subtle high notes. Even that feels like an incomplete comparison, though; on most Unwound songs, Justin Trosper mixes his vocals extremely quietly, betraying the sense that his band has already given up. Dupuis’s vocals are less nihilistic, sung loud and strong with a belief that music should cleanse rather than dwell. Her stories are tragic, upsetting, and often disturbing (“You picked a virgin over me,”, a line from”Plough”, is one of many that unearths a buried past), but they’re never half-assed. Major Arcana is foreboding, but it’s sort of inspiring how it refuses to get its story lost in the mix. Dupuis doesn’t give up.
Major Arcana is really good at justifying itself, too. On “No Below”, Dupuis unravels a high school story about being kicked while down and how the only people who noticed her were the ones she wished she could have been invisible to. The measured pace the song develops at is perfect, revealing the pain of bullying like a long-standing scar that finally gets too much. It begins with Dupuis mulling over the past, half-mumbling it like it shouldn’t even matter: “You didn’t know me when I was a kid,” she reflects, the guitar playing in a laze, as if this is just an unconscious backstage jam. It develops at an excruciating pace, almost stoner rock in its slow, chunky riffs, stark chords, and hammered drumming. Such is being trodden on, such is being down; “on crutches” you move slowly, on the inside as much as the outside. “No Below” reflects the feeling that Dupuis would”rather be dead” distinctly; it goes on and on, trying to expel the feeling by blinking hard. Nothing does the trick. Eventually, the song develops into the frenetic solo that helps bookend it, though it chooses to conclude with Dupuis backing into an admission: “I didn’t know you when I was a kid / But swimming with you it sure feels like I did.” This is a song that’s calibrated for the intensity that comes out of it — by the time Speedy Ortiz flare up on that second chorus, it feels righteous.
That might be why Major Arcana doesn’t sound like homage. Its free-falling lyrics reflect Dupuis’s poetic side, and the swaths of guitar rock bands it hearkens back to are good for classifying it, but it’s a record that wraps words around music. “Gary” has one of the most interesting lyrics I’ve heard this year (“I have seen the art of my stupid counterpart, the proportion’s wrong / Every line, I’m sure, the erase marks, like a sore thumb, swelling and cumbersome”), but it doesn’t jump out of line the way a Malkmus line would. It’s too folded into the song, and too indebted to telling us the full story, to be typed out for its own momentary brilliance. Even the record’s most notable lyrical nugget — that moment in the off-kilter “Fun” where Dupuis growls “Criminally twisted puny little twisted villain” — comes in two abrupt waves, Dupuis pausing before she completes the sentence. It’s followed by a lyric that tries to one-up it: “I still get my dick sucked on the regular.” Major Arcana keeps outdoing itself like this, whether there’s a smarter remark to be made or a louder volume to be reached. But it doesn’t ever showboat; this is just what adversity is. It’s pumping yourself up until you reach that sweet breaking point.