The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away
The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.
29 June 2020
Matt Sharp, frontman, songwriter, and only permanent member of the Rentals, doesn't release music very often. Q36 is the band's fourth album over 25 years of existence, and first since 2014's Lost in Alphaville. It bears some of the hallmarks that people old enough to remember the band's 1990s heyday will recognize, namely lots of distortion and synthesizers. But it probably most closely resembles the band's second album, 1999's Seven More Minutes. For a long time in my mind, Seven More Minutes was the Rentals' peak, but after revisiting it this year, it turns out it's a sprawling, hour-long, 15-track record that probably would've been better with ten to 12 songs.
Q36, for its part, is a sprawling, 68-minute long, 16-track record that probably would've been better off with 11 to 13 songs. That is usually the way with double albums, and Q36 is not an exception. It also flirts with being a rock opera without quite committing to it. As a person who tries to pay attention to lyrics, this half-measure is frustrating. At times it seems like a narrative, telling the story of Steve, an astronaut who returns to Earth with PTSD. But although Steve appears over multiple songs on the album, there isn't a coherent story. It would be more appropriate to call this a concept album about outer space, with songs ranging in subject matter from Steve's experiences to alien invasions to Elon Musk. But all 16 tracks don't fit into even that broad concept. So it's a bit of a mish-mash.
The album gets started with the space stuff right away, at least a little bit. Opener "Shake Your Diamonds" is a mid-tempo rocker about the rich celebrating with a wild party the night before Armageddon happens. Lines like "Q36 rains vengeance down upon us tonight" and "The words of H.G. Wells are all coming true", set the stage for the alien invasion that comes much later in the album. Musically the song features oppressive distorted bass and squeaky synths, giving the whole track a patina of noise that obscures the marching drum beat, simple guitar chords, and Sharp's singing (which is also filtered through some distortion). It's a big way to start the album, but it isn't altogether pleasant.
The second song, "Nowhere Girl", is a bit calmer, driven by acoustic guitar in the first couple of verses, although the distortion and high-end synth noise still appear in the song's chorus. This one tells the story of a group of 10-year olds finding a naked girl washed up on the bank of a river and returning the next day to find her gone. The narrator has been perplexed by this event for 35 years, but the song offers no resolution to the story. "9th Configuration" is a Bowie-esque acoustic track about a doctor who arrives at an asylum to discover why an astronaut now has a deep-seated fear of The Moon. And just like "Nowhere Girl", the song offers no conclusion to its narrative. By dropping the majority of the noise (a wobbly synth tone still drifts through much of the song), it's a lot easier to appreciate the solid songwriting of "9th Configuration." The noise to songwriting ratio ends up being a recurring issue throughout the album.
When Sharp sticks to the astronauts and space stuff, his songs work pretty well. "Teen Beat Cosmonaut" introduces Steve the astronaut by name, voted "Hottest Astronaut Alive in 1995", but stranded in space after NASA funding cuts. Apparently, he can still receive messages, though, because "These dirty little girls keep sending dirty little pictures and videos." The music, a grinding, thumping synth march, is not one of the Rentals' best, but the narrative is at least intriguing. "Forgotten Astronaut" is written from the perspective of Michael Collins or one of the other Apollo astronauts who had to stay up in the orbiter while the other guys went down to the surface of the Moon and became famous. It's an interesting examination of professional jealousy and high stakes while the music buzzes along competently below.
"Spaceships" features verses about some unsavory characters traveling the galaxy looking for a place to settle down. The chorus, only tangentially related to the verses, is one of the album's catchiest. Sharp and his group of background vocalists sing, "Spaceships gonna take away our heartache / Spaceships gonna take away our pain," and a couple more lines. The oppressive synth tone is mostly limited to between the verses, and its resemblance to 1950s B-movie UFO music really works here. "Invasion Night" is another one where the music is only okay. It effectively creates tension but has almost no melody. Sharp speak-sings in a low voice that does the song no musical favors, but the narrative is great. He recounts an Independence Day-style alien attack where "Seven billion souls died side by side," but Sharp's narrator finds another survivor and escapes. Lines like "We drove all night to San Simeon Bay" and "Genocide is the saddest place to hook up" give the song loads of atmosphere.
But these songs only make up about half of Q36. The more general songs and other topics Sharp covers often highlight how forgettable his actual songwriting is on this album. It doesn't help that he often relies on the lowest end of his vocal range, which is the least dynamic aspect of his singing voice. In the past, as on the band's biggest hit "Friends of P", Sharp would brighten these passages with sweet female backing vocals. Those backing vocals still appear from time to time on this album, attributed to the Gentle Assassins Choir (a makeshift title for the various people who contributed backing vocals on the album), but he is often going it alone and singing quite low.
A mid-tempo song like "Above This Broken World" doesn't have a compelling story in the lyrics, doesn't have a great melody and features many low Sharp vocals, and so it just exists. It's not bad, per se, just forgettable. "Into the Great Big Blue", by contrast, is a propulsive rocker, features lyrics about a rocket launch, and has a lot of energy. It's a step above "Broken World", but its hooks are only so-so, which also means it ends up being forgettable. "Machine Love" is a big, noisy song about falling in love with an android specifically designed for the narrator's interests. Sharp brings up thorny issues about whether the love is genuine when it was so tailored, and that part is interesting. But I can't help feeling like the song needed to be sleazier-sounding for the lyrics' satirical bent to work.
"Conspiracy" is interesting, both musically and lyrically. Musically it has the album's most interesting drumbeat, and the easygoing acoustic guitar riff locks in well with that beat. It also has a simple chorus with a big melodic hook. Lyrically Sharp covers a lot of classic conspiracy theories, including (of course) the faked moon landing, secret bunkers, Elvis and Jim Morrison being alive, and Art Bell's late-night radio UFO nonsense. I wish Sharp had been a little, well, sharper, in his lyrical targets, considering the plethora of conspiratorial nonsense that large portions of the American population believe in here in 2020. Sharp ignores all of that.
But let's talk about Elon Musk. After 61 minutes of songs of distorted noise, space nonsense, and various production choices from Sharp's main collaborators Dave Fridmann and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, the album ends with a seven-minute classic. "Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad" imagines a world where Matt Sharp grew up with Elon Musk and is an account of their lifelong friendship and rivalry. Sharp sings in his traditional higher range, the distortion is kept to reasonable levels, and the melodies and hooks are spot-on. Its two-minute closing coda features familiar-sounding female backing vocals. This is a song where folks who listened to the Rentals in the 1990s will instantly go, "Hey, it's the Rentals!!" The story is also compelling, as Sharp gets left behind by Musk after early success as the bassist in Weezer and then in the Rentals. The song climaxes with Sharp pleading with Musk to let him be the first person to fly to Mars in a SpaceX rocket. The song is seven minutes long, and those minutes pass effortlessly.
"Elon Musk" is a great way to close the album, as it's easily Q36's best song. But it also highlights how much Sharp is reaching and not quite succeeding in many of the record's other songs. This is a spotty effort at best, and the loosely-connected space theme ends up putting some of the album's weaker material in the spotlight instead of allowing it to be glossed over as just another album track. The theme pushes the listener to figure out how each track connects, which puts more focus on each song instead of just letting the material pass by. But any lapsed fans of the Rentals at least owe it to themselves to stream "Elon Musk is Making Me Sad" because it will put a big smile on their faces.