After a 16-year hiatus, John P. Strohm has returned with a new album. It’s good to have him back. Strohm is best known as a fixture of the Boston music scene during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when bands like Pixies, Throwing Muses, Galaxie 500, and the Lemonheads were redefining the possibilities of post-punk pop music. Some of these bands took their reference points from Britain – Joy Division, Spacemen 3, and the Jesus and Mary Chain – while others looked to stateside sources – Big Star, Gram Parsons, the Modern Lovers, and the Feelies. The result was a special, galvanizing moment in American music that has long since dissipated.
Strohm recorded with the Lemonheads, providing drums on Creator (1988) and Lick (1989), but he achieved fame as a co-founder of Blake Babies with Juliana Hatfield and Freda Love. Receiving their name (which referenced the British romantic poet William Blake) from Allen Ginsberg at a poetry reading, their indie rock style and lyrical content embodied an appealing mix of innocence and experience to reference one of Blake’s works and the Blake Babies’ posthumous compilation LP, Innocence and Experience (1993).
In retrospect, their sound, which favored simple pop arrangements and an unaffected vocal delivery, reflected the “new sincerity” ethos of the time primarily located in Austin and acts like Daniel Johnston and the Reivers. Yet, there were comparable bands that similarly embraced an anti-cynical simplicity, including Beat Happening, the dB’s, Let’s Active, and Half Japanese. For Blake Babies, their sense of genuineness partly derived from the shared vocal responsibilities between Hatfield and Strohm, which could harmonize beautifully. Though Hatfield, on balance, defined their sound more, songs like Strohm’s playfully ironic “Girl in a Box” from Sunburn (1990) demonstrated his equivalent role.
Something to Look Forward To is a world apart from his early years. After Blake Babies and his follow-up band, Antenna, Strohm went to law school and has been active on the business side of the music industry, including a stint as president of Rounder Records. This new album is prompted in part by the passing of his friend, Ed Ackerson, in 2019, who recorded with Antenna in addition to working as an engineer and producer for the Replacements, the Jayhawks, and on Strohm’s earlier solo albums, Caledonia (1996), Vestavia (1999), and Everyday Life (2007). Ackerson plays on this new LP as well.
Despite these circumstances, Something to Look Forward To is not an entirely melancholic album. As the title suggests, it’s about taking stock and keeping an eye on the horizon. Perhaps reflecting his time at Rounder and his home of Nashville, the excellent first track, “Ready for Nothing”, is a country rock composition in the literate manner of James McMurtry. The Beatlesque second track, “Ruins”, has a Paul McCartney vibe. The title song, “Something to Look Forward To”, recalls the British folk-rock of Nick Drake and Richard Thompson. Strohm hasn’t lost his talent for pop hooks.
Lyrically, Something to Look Forward To addresses a range of topics familiar to middle age. Facing mortality and accounting for one’s life together form the theme of several tracks, including “Ready for Nothing” and “Ruins”. “Lancaster” and “Counting Backwards” are nostalgic meditations on time, specifically the misguided feeling of its limitlessness when you’re young. Meanwhile, the risks, redemptive possibilities, and nourishing pleasures of love are addressed on “Don’t Tell It to Your Heart” and “Something to Look Forward To”. There is a detour into politics with “This American Lie”, but Strohm is primarily concerned with imparting the hard-won lessons that only friendship, mutual care, and mid-life can bring.
There is ultimately more experience than innocence on this album. In “When the World Sang Along”, Strohm sings of “the chill of the hole you can’t fill”. He walks a line between recognizing the fragile, ephemeral qualities of life while also refusing to be resolutely downbeat. With ten tracks running just over 30 minutes, this LP has no filler. Strohm has chosen its topics carefully.
Something to Look Forward To has a Jonathan Richman quality circa I, Jonathan (1992), with its straightforward, unfussy songcraft and plaintive, emotional honesty. With his veteran status, John P. Strohm is deserving of this comparison. He is still a believer in the pop song as a vehicle for life’s essential truths.