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Music Reviews

Maxwell Stern Gives Us a Warm Car in Frigid Winter with 'Impossible Sum'

Photo: Courtesy of Lauren Records via Bandcamp

Maxwell Stern's debut record, The Impossible Sum, is a relaxed, honest, deeply felt exploration of what it means to be a feeling, caring human in our time of incessant gaslighting and doom scrolling.

Impossible Sum
Maxwell Stern

Lauren Records

25 September 2020

I first noticed Maxwell Stern from a pleasant, unassuming tweet that somehow snuck into my usually gloomy feed. Stern's tweet said something about not really wanting fame but wanting that low-key 12:30 am talk show slot, and he said he'd wear the "best T-shirt I got." I was set back by how earnest and otherworldly chill it sounded, so I had to search him out to see if it was all a play-act for clicks. It wasn't. Stern's debut record, The Impossible Sum, out now on Lauren Records, is a relaxed, honest, deeply felt exploration of what it means to be a feeling, caring human in our time of incessant gaslighting and doom scrolling. It plays like prose, and it feels like a sigh of relief.

Impossible Sum could easily be called an indie rock or folk-rock record, but Sterns' roots are a little more histrionic. For example, he's played in a group called Timeshares, where the vocals are more likely to be yelled than crooned. His main group is called Signals Midwest, and it checks all the boxes of third-wave emo. Play a random track from Signals Midwest, and you can almost smell the sweat of a cramped basement show, and you can hear the vocals chords rip and shred.

Stern took a turn with Impossible Sum, though. The wonderfully light track, "Shiny Things", encompasses acoustic guitar, slide guitar, and bouncy bass, all while spreading the well-worn but always welcome "Notice the world around you for once, you fool!" message. "Never Ending Equals Sign" ambles on light keys and acoustic strums while Stern rolls out a narrative of a loving going away party. You can almost see Stern cry-smiling through the lyrics, "..and I pass out little slivers of myself."

"Pull the Stars Down" is as quiet as a polite cafe filled with Edison lights while Stern politely bursts in with the earworm of "Put on your good shoes and silence your phones now. Brave the trains and meet me across town." About three-quarters of the album runs at this leisurely, Saturday afternoon-nap pace. If you're hoping for the speed and sweat of Stern's prior work, you won't find much of it here.

Elsewhere, Stern cranks the intensity a little, yet most assuredly keeps the messages light and comforting. "Water Tower'' snaps into life on a snare drum and lets some distorted keys lead the way while Stern drops this relatable nugget: "Though I'm thankful for everything I've been given, it's only human to want a bigger deal." "Flyover Town" starts like Neil Young circa Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and finds Stern idealizing his midwestern roots where he was "either asleep in the sun on my way to dance in the dark."

It's evident that Stern is a searching soul, and Impossible Sum denotes a particular part in the search that so many of us go through. It's that part where the restlessness starts to wane, and your vision starts to focus a bit more on what has been right in front of you the whole time. The final track, "Warm in Your Car", hits this note perfectly. After detailing the unending fatigue of moving to a new city and settling in, Stern sings, "But it's warm in your car, and it feels so good to be here... So stay where you are and fall into place here." With Impossible Sum, Stern has given us a place to fall, a warm car in the frigid winter. Go ahead and fall in.

7

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