Downtown Boys: Cost of Living

Photo: Farrah Skeiky (Sub Pop)

Cost of Living isn’t just a punk album with “something to say”; it is one that boasts an impressively sustainable ideology.

Downtown Boys

Cost of Living

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2017-08-11

The message of Downtown Boys is simple: if you are here to close anyone’s mind, fuck you. While this sentiment certainly had bite two years ago when the group’s furious sophomore album Full Communism dropped, it seems even more urgent today, when every piece of American art must be considered in the context of a leader who, with nearly every action, is driving this country deeper and deeper into a pit of hate, intolerance, and despair. Indeed, if there’s ever been a time for a Latinx queer-punk group like Downtown Boys to do something about society’s shit (and there certainly has), that time is now.

However, Downtown Boys certainly don’t hope to be typecast as a product of the Trump era. Cost of Living is the type of protest punk that was relevant way before the new wave of fascism unveiled itself on the country’s biggest platform last November. If you were to ask them, they would express dismay in the assumption that this was the first sign of injustice escalating or that Trump’s election was more than a confirmation; in fact, most of these songs were written before the election even happened. Yet, context remains a vital source of vigor. When Victoria Ruiz screams “a wall is just a wall” on the opening track, it now points specifically to one thing. It might be ill-advised to make assumptions about the lyrics that follow (“when you see him now / I hope you see yourself”) but when read as commentary, they pull off the task of balancing nuance with forthright aggression. Cost of Living isn’t just a punk album with “something to say”; it is one that boasts an impressively sustainable ideology.

In that regard, Cost of Living doesn’t position itself as a political record as much as one that hopes to raise alarm at a lack of human decency. It refuses to be naïve- “Heroes (Interlude)” is a spoken word piece about how causes are best fought for if everyone is the “hero in their own story” -- and if it ever gets vague, it fills in the blanks with a catharsis that persists like a rampant tornado. The energy refuses to let up, and this is at the core of their mission. On “Violent Complicity”, Ruiz sings “we’ll be loud / until the tables come crashing down” and the moments where her voice is pushed to the brink are the ones where the sentiments resonate the most; she’s always loud, but when she is hollering sharp jabs like “you’re worried I’ll treat you like you treat me", there’s an appropriate amount of urgency.

As opposed to previous bursts of unhinged sax-punk, Cost of Living seems to benefit from a newfound richness, as if infectiousness is taking on a greater weight. Many of these riffs and refrains are catchy to the point where they become the prime source of appeal, adding a musicality that often gets undermined in such venomous tantrums. The brass-punk contrast remains an explosive trick; whenever the saxophone gets dragged along in the rampage, the frustration is underlined. The charisma is sturdy enough to lean on, so if they ever dip into monotony, they are always able to hoist themselves up a dimension with bilingualism, tempo shifts, and the fact that Ruiz’s vocals constantly teeter between exasperation and an endless well of energy.

If the album suffers, the suffering is never a product of its ambition. Even though Cost of Living boasts the production chops of Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, it occasionally sounds contained, as if there is a charisma itching to pierce through the center that is being held back by some drive to stay grounded. Downtown Boys love it loud, but there are times when the saxophone wails and the screams persist, but there is still room for abrasion. It’s a sacrifice that has to be made for the sake of accessibility, but for a group that demands your attention so often, the instruments deserve more flavor.

However, Downtown Boys are a band so big in ambition and charisma that it is rare to find a time where their energy falls short. Activism has become a trendy trait to tout, but Downtown Boys are a convincing embodiment of music moving to make a change. Cost of Living is as well-defined and mature as the times when Downtown Boys used their performances at Coachella and SXSW as a platform to denounce fundamentally fucked up flaws in each institution’s ethics. Now is a perfect time for a band like their’s to prosper, and Cost of Living fulfills the noblest of expectations.

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