The Districts have an origin story that’s the stuff of teenage dreams. They formed in high school in Lititz, Pennsylvania, a quaint town in the part of the state where it’s hard to go a mile without seeing a sign referencing the Moravians or a diner offering shoo-fly pie. A few years later, they were signed to a venerable indie label and touring the country — all before any of them could legally drink.
Maybe it’s no surprise that their earliest records sound like the work of bored teenagers trying on their heroes’ costumes. There was Bob Dylan’s imagery, Julian Casablancas’s croon, and the Walkmen’s languid shuffle, but little that sounded uniquely like the Districts. That’s not to say they weren’t talented. They developed a devoted and decidedly younger fan base because of their passionate live shows. They might have been ripping off the greats, but at least they could convincingly pull it off.
Popular Manipulations (2017) found them consciously expanding their sound, as if they were intent on convincing the rest of us that they weren’t those little kids anymore. I’d imagine the origin story had grown tired, and so had the sound that’d earned them a record deal. In promoting the album, lead singer Rob Grote noted, “what’s more interesting is who we are now. I guess what we are now is more reflective of who we are as people rather than where we came from.” And while that record had some especially impressive moments, in retrospect, it’s clear that it was a stepping stone to their latest album. You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere is a sonic and lyrical breakthrough for the Districts, a record that’s years beyond anything else in their catalog.
The Districts handled the production themselves, alongside Keith Abrams, and wisely allowed themselves the space to mess around. “Cheap Regrets” sounds more James Murphy than Bob Dylan, with a legitimately danceable rhythm section propelled the slinkiest bassline the Districts have ever set to tape. “Dancer” is led by a swirling, reverb-soaked saxophone that makes for a highlight of the record’s back half. All of this is amplified by the presence of Dave Fridmann, who mixed the record in his distinctly blown-out, maximalist style, allowing Braden Lawrence’s drums to explode in the same way they did for the Flaming Lips and Sleater-Kinney on The Soft Bulletin and The Woods.
More than anything else, though, what makes You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere a success is Grote’s refined songwriting. In your 20s, a few years can feel like a lifetime. The changes can feel subtle until you start to take stock. Suddenly, people begin talking about job security. Some friends marry and start families while others drift into obscurity. Parents pass or grow old or senile. “Another knot comes untied. I guess that’s part of it,” Grote mentions amid a letter to an old friend on the psychedelic “Hey Jo”: “You learn to adjust.” On the next song, he offers a resolution: “The present always dies, so I’m going out to make it something sacred.”
Throughout You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere, there’s a recognition that the only thing worse than growing older is pretending that you’re not. “I can’t keep on blaming everyone’s changes,” Grote sings on “Changing”. He knows what he’s supposed to feel, but the songs sound like he’s trying, desperately at times, to convince himself that he’s accepted the inevitability of it all. It’s a level of honesty and maturity that’s a far cry from his earlier songs. But maybe that’s to be expected: he’s grown up now, even if it hasn’t been easy.