Growing up the younger brother of a Jersey punk rocker, I got used to the idea of songs being political. When it was a tape of a local band coming from his room, sometimes it wasn’t even clear if it was a song. But you knew where the singer stood: KFC was murder and so was property.
When I first heard Marcus Gordon of Spookyland’s voice coming out of my speakers, I fully expected the message coming from this singer to bear along a Johnny Rotten-approved anarcho-punk message. His nasal inflection was snotty and attention-grabbing, and there were buzzwords that stuck out on so many of his songs — “nowhereland”, “idiot flag”, “rebellion”, “prophet”, “suburban gospel” — which cast him as the kind of basement, slacker hero that is so the norm in that genre. And yet, following Gordon and his band closely through their giant 11-track opus, Beauty Already Beautiful, the landscape is notably a-political despite so much punk ethos and signifiers.
In short, Spookyland’s brand of swinging rock ‘n’ roll is more Clash than Dead Kennedys. The predominant feeling of Beauty Already Beautiful is that same jaded dissatisfaction captured on Clash’s “I Fought the Law” (where, on their cover, Dead Kennedys corrected the refrain to “I fought the law and I law won”). And yet, Gordon repeatedly declines to openly gripe. He sings on “Bulimic Heart”, “And all the ways to be condemned / In songs or in opinions / Are being sung and said.” The subtlety of that sense of resignation (suggested in the title itself, Beauty Already Beautiful) comes through so completely in the music, that I found it to be at times uncomfortably affecting, especially in concert with the record’s big, anthemic sound.
Musically, the record courses seamlessly from pub-rock anthems (Costello), to swung, punk shanties (Clash), to heartland rock (Springsteen), all similar setups, but each with their own demanding moves. The band embodies these rock band set-pieces with precision. They remind me of Destroyer’s Destroyer’s Rubies, where the players adopted a ‘70s rock band format to support Dan Bejar’s charismatic schtick. Gordon, like Bejar, is an idiosyncratic singer who freely treads on the bar-line and demands silence if he’s got a good one to deliver. He’s also a good poet, hiding clever and complex lyrics beneath an often hazy layer of reverb.
On the sweeter end, there’s a good deal of romance knotted into those lyrics, although it sneaks out more in the lyric than the music it’s tucked into. In his song “Rebellion” — a standout with a great chorus and exciting song structure — he sings, “my lover and I are prophets in our suburban gospel / and our love is the only rebellion.” The brand of ugly, everyday romance that Spookyland captures recalls The Joshua Tree-era U2, on which Bono blended the political and personal through bittersweet romantic songs (“With Or Without You”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.)
I found Spookyland to be at their best and most original at their extremes: haunting, bare ballads or big, proto-shoegaze anthems, where they create a soft, pillowy canvas for Gordon’s poetry, rather than jam its sensitivity into a noisy, pub band format. And yet, Spookyland succeeds throughout to create their own twisted universe of youthful feeling, using their moody rock ‘n’ roll to process a mad world.