With Divorce, the Vancouver, BC-based JPNSGRLS maintain the energy of their debut record, Circulation, but lose out on some of its charms.
JPNSGRLS (pronounced "Japanese Girls") made one hell of an entrance in 2014 with Circulation, their debut LP for Light Organ Records. Right from the release of lead single "Smalls", where frontman Charlie Kerr narrates the haze of a drug rush in a rapid-fire pace, JPNSGRLS made it clear that while one can pin down certain parts of their aesthetic, especially pop-punk, their music resists a single genre tag. Everything from shoegaze to garage rock to rockabilly finds a home in the space of Circulation. Two years have passed since that album, and while it's no genre-defining classic, it still holds up well. These guys know how to have fun and be smart at the same time.
Divorce, JPNSGRLS' sophomore outing (still for Light Organ), made a less compelling entrance earlier this year. The debut single off of Divorce is "Bully for You", which the band describes as a "feminist anthem". Says Kerr of the song, “‘Bully For You’ is an observational protest song about the ceaseless, unfair treatment of women from the point of view of a cisgendered man. It explores the passivity and complacency of misogyny in society throughout the ages, from the beheading of Anne Boleyn to modern day disrespect for female lives and bodies around the world.”
Those themes, of course, are all well and good. All artists, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation, should support the empowerment of women. Taken on its own terms, the message of "Bully for You" is great. However, in context, the status of the song as a "feminist anthem" feels more like #branding than it does a natural expression of the song's message. Much like the nauseating, craven commercialization of feminism recently seen in the promotional campaigns for the all-female Ghostbusters, the feminist framing of "Bully for You" is more opportunistic than genuine. The themes identified by Kerr are present on "Bully for You", but they aren't so revelatory as to justify its status as a "feminist anthem".
The same can be said for the rest of Divorce as a whole. Kerr's lyrics are still a cut above the standards of the genres that JPNSGRLS purvey in – "keep me pressed against your lips like a glass pipe," he sings on opener "Oh My God" – but it's difficult to claim that any of these songs are anything more than rock numbers with a slightly above average intelligence about them. JPNSGRLS aren't a statement band, and Divorce is not a statement album.
Divorce is a high-energy rock LP with some twists here and there, but what's surprising is how much the band has toned down since Circulation. The latter's manic creativity is in the former traded out for a streamlined, straightforward rock approach, which pays out in some songs more than others. The herky-jerky riff on "Trojan Horse" is appealing, as the punchy and quick "A Girl From a Different Dimension". Yet as Divorce moves through its fleeting 30 minute runtime, the riffs start to lose their thrust, and the hooks feel a lot more predictable. JPNSGRLS have proven adept at sustaining momentum over the course of a record prior to this; Circulation keeps a steady pace up until the last minute. Divorce's conclusion, short though the album is, feels like a shrug due to the homogeneity of the latter half of the LP.
There are enough flashes of ingenuity on Divorce to remind the listener that this is the same talented band that made Circulation. Still, it's strange that JPNSGRLS are slimming down their sound this early into their career; not only does Circulation boast some impressive tunes, but it also paints the picture of a band willing to experiment rather than land firmly on one style. Open-mindedness is hardly an innovative approach to life, but it does JPNSGRLS well on Circulation. No matter the lofty political messages that have been attributed to Divorce cuts like "Bully for You", Kerr's lyrical aims are not matched by the so-so music that backs him up. This is rock music with a lot of energy but little charm.