Photo: Pooneh Ghana (Jagjaguwar)

Preoccupations Show Their Human Side on ‘New Material’

Post-punk revivalists Preoccupations are as good as ever, but their third album smooths down their rougher edges and turns their nervy gaze inward.

New Material
23 March 2018

The story of Preoccupations is the story of a band slowly opening up and shedding light into their internal darkness. Their debut – released under the name Viet Cong – was a compelling, unsettling wash of atonal Gothic darkness, filled with pounding drums and detached ruminations on death and psychosis. They appeared to barely be in control of themselves, whereas their reintroduction as Preoccupations saw them retain that dark perspective while adding a semblance of measure and control. On New Material, that progression gets taken even further. Far from being the barely-contained chaotic beast they were at their inception, Preoccupations now seem to be a tightly-wound band that contains multitudes.

Immediately, New Material stands out as the most concise work that Preoccupations have released. There’s a concerted effort to organize their chaos, and the meandering 12-minute epics like “Memory” or “Death” are nowhere to be found here. In their place are concise songs that are strangely inviting, luring the listener into an uncanny world that nevertheless feels just human enough.

The paranoia of past works is here, most notably on wiry, unnerving single “Espionage”. Its call-and-response chorus seems less like an exhortation than it does like dueling voices inside the head of someone going mad. Again, this isn’t exactly new territory, but what’s different is the sense of attachment here. The warm synth tones bring you in and place you in singer Matt Flegel’s position, rather than holding you at arms’ length to ponder a concept. There’s an emphasis on the band’s part on occupying a headspace, as opposed to simply creating one. If their past work invited one to think, New Material invites one to feel.

This more humanistic approach is coupled with what is arguably Preoccupations’ most personal set of songs to date. Despair and isolation are not new topics for post-punk, but where Preoccupations first seemed content to document the ongoing madness of the world in abstract terms, they now turn their gaze inward. Themes of depression and anxiety run throughout New Material, often in uncompromising terms.

On “Antidote”, Flegel lets his voice get to its most haggard point as he sings “Whether we ask for it or not / To live is to suffer again and again.” “Doubt” poses existential questions, noting that living is something we don’t have a choice but to do: “The cells divide and multiply / And we can’t help ourselves.” By inverting the perspective (“we” is used far more often than on Preoccupations, which seemed concerned with a faceless, plural “you”), the band have created an album far more impactful than expected, even as their songwriting style and aesthetic are simplified to make it work.

Ideally, New Material could be a gateway album for newer fans of the band who may have been put off by the stark, knotty work on their previous albums. Then again, this doesn’t feel like a purposeful sanding down of edges on the part of Preoccupations, nor does it seem to be a one-off excursion into the dark pit of the self. In many ways, New Material is a natural progression of what Preoccupations have done and continue to do better than just about anyone else at the moment. Their command of the genre’s signifiers and traditions remains unparalleled; they’ve just added a more personal touch to the process.

RATING 7 / 10