Celebrated Seattle band Tacocat opened their last album, 2016’s Lost Time, with an ode to fictional FBI agent Dana Katherine Scully, of The X-Files fame. Praising Scully’s shoulder pads and her no-nonsense attitude, Tacocat’s lead singer Emily Nokes noted, “The truth is out there, but so are lies / To see the world through Dana Katherine Scully’s eyes.”
By contrast, Tacocat opens their new album, This Mess Is a Place, by stating, “Not so long ago I used to feel like / I was too sensitive to even be alive / But maybe now it’s the opposite.” Times have changed, and so has Tacocat, which was founded in 2007. The result is Tacocat’s best album yet, and probably one of the best guitar-based pop-rock albums we’re likely to hear this year.
It’s not that there is anything at all wrong with Tacocat’s previous albums, 2014’s NVM, and 2016’s Lost Time. On those albums, Tacocat brought an infectious pop-punk sound to songs that covered mansplaining (“Men Explain Things to Me”), sexual harassment (“Hey Girl”), bus schedules (“F.U. #8”), equestrian enthusiasts (“Horse Girls”), and reluctant party-going (“Party Trap”), as well as two excellent surf rock songs about menstruation (“Crimson Wave” and “FDP”).
Tacocat (Emily Nokes, vocals; Lelah Maupin, drums; Bree McKenna, bass; Eric Randall, guitar) has been on a roll since at least 2014, but This Mess Is a Place feels like the band has moved to a whole new level. While taking nothing away from their older work, the new album brings a new focus and maturity, as well as an embrace of a wide-screen pop-rock sound that is exhilarating.
This Mess Is a Place opens strong with a four-song blast of pop tunes in which the high energy doesn’t attempt to hide the ruminative lyrics that repeatedly focus on the idea of trying to preserve a degree of personal integrity in a world that seems just slightly (or maybe more than just slightly) askew. “Just remember if you can, power is a hologram,” Nokes sings in “Hologram”, before advising, “But you know it’s okay to feel everything at the same time.” Follow-up track “New World” speculates on what could be done if we suddenly woke up on a shinier, happier planet.
The super-catchy and subtly funky third track, “Grains of Salt”, contains the lyric that seems to sum up the overall theme of This Mess Is a Place: “Don’t forget to remember who the fuck you are.” Every other lyric on the record orbits around that emphatically-sung line.
The fourth song of this fine opening stretch, “The Joke of Life”, finds Nokes channeling her inner Belinda Carlisle on a song that seamlessly combines modern alt-rock and a driving Talk Show era Go-Go’s sound with just a pinch of classic up-tempo Motown in Randall’s guitar playing and Maupin and McKenna’s rhythm work. Even amid this inexorably groovy tune, Tacocat’s lyrics are questioning the current state of life in 2019: “I was hoping you could tell me the joke, the joke of life / I used to know it, but that was the other time.”
After the first four songs, “Little Friend” might initially seem like a letdown, but it reveals itself to be a beautifully moody song about the mystical bonds that people form with their pets, and how those animals can offer respite from the crazy. “Ooh, I can understand you / When I can’t stand anyone,” sings Nokes, before offering a lovely bit of imagery with “Outside, days are getting longer / Fall asleep in a slice of sun.”
While the second half of This Mess Is a Place is slightly less strong than the first (but only slightly), it still rings true with songs in which narrators repeatedly seem to be approaching friends and saying, “Hey, times are weird, but I’m OK, I think. How about you?” In a late album highlight, “Meet Me at La Palma”, Nokes and friend find refuge at a restaurant/bar that looks like it shouldn’t even be open, and where patrons order “seven-dollar margaritas that are bigger than your head”. With its steady supply of banana daiquiris and “breathtaking view of the freeway”, La Palma feels like the place to stay until things get sorted out a bit. This Mess Is a Place would make an excellent soundtrack for such an extended visitation.