Much of 2020 was awful but the new music released in this Year of Endless Sorrows™ wasn’t. To celebrate, rather than posting one single article about the year in music, I’m going to post a new piece each day this week. Monday through Thursday will cover my four favorite albums of the year and Friday will provide a list of additional new releases that I’ve enjoyed in 2020, a year that—despite one or two really great moments—can go ahead and just end already.
American Fail’s self-titled debut is the best record of 2020. The album is divided into 22 tracks but that’s purely for show because American Fail is a single, nonstop, 20-minute blast of punk rock that I would inject directly into my veins if I could. Led by Bobby Darling of Gatsbys American Dream fame, the band is a Seattle scene supergroup including Casey Bates, who’s produced bands like Portugal. The Man and The Fall of Troy, and Yuri Ruley, who has been drumming for punk icons MxPx for nearly 30 years. That talent is exceedingly evident in the album’s production and performances, both of which are sharp and crisp. The real magic of American Fail, though, is in its ideas.
Darling is the engine that drives this record and his unique sonic sensibilities and poetic tendencies are presented more clearly on American Fail than on any record since 2006’s Gatsbys American Dream. (And that includes 2017’s wonderful Shopping Is a Feeling, an album I absorbed so deeply that I literally wrote the book on it.) Crunchy riffs and tremolo solos are embedded in Darling’s signature style of through-composed, irregular song construction and—
Actually, let’s hold up for a minute. See, the thing is that I love this record. That’s an unsurprising development given how much I love Darling’s entire catalog: Gatsbys American Dream has been my favorite band for a decade and a half, Search/Rescue’s The Compound is a staple of my summer listening, I covered Places and Numbers in one of the first proper album reviews I ever wrote, multiple songs from The Money Pit have featured on every playlist I’ve made since that album’s release, and, of course, I literally wrote a novella about Darling’s last album, Shopping Is a Feeling, released under the moniker What What What. Beyond all that history, I’ve also had the good fortune to get to know Darling over the last few years and so, well, of course I was going to love American Fail.
But here’s the thing. Here’s why I want to stop the standard album review and get past listing comparable bands and albums—which, for the record, would be Darling’s idiosyncratic styles from Gatsbys American Dream and Shopping Is a Feeling plus the energy of Saves the Day’s Through Being Cool (literally), all filtered through NOFX’s The Decline—and here’s why I want to admit my biases and then set them aside: I think American Fail is important. Important not just for me or people like me, not because I love it or other albums like it, and not because I idolized and then befriended its chief creator. American Fail is important for the same reason that the entirety of Gatsbys American Dream was important and for the same reason that Shopping Is a Feeling’s story of disillusioned millennials looking for meaning is important: because it’s thoughtful. Because Darling has done the heavy lifting of examining social issues and distilling them to their (often horrifying) essence.
Maybe thoughtfulness shouldn’t be a rarity, shouldn’t be exceptional, but it is. If you doubt me, just open your social media feed of choice. Hell, look out your window at a country that can’t decide whether its citizens are worth taking any action to save. Being thoughtful takes time, it takes energy and, more often than it should, it goes unrewarded.
Gatsbys American Dream, Shopping Is a Feeling and so many other thoughtful projects never get the due they deserve because thoughtful works are rarely attention grabbing. They are lit by a fire that burns hot but slowly. And American Fail fits right among them. But here’s where we diverge from Darling’s past, save the possible exception of Shopping Is a Feeling, because beyond being thoughtful American Fail is also topical, its lyrical content likely to feel urgent and relevant for many, many people in a way that Volcano and Ribbons & Sugar simply didn’t. And those people, those who would find inspiration or solace or revitalization in it, need to hear this record.
And they should hear it today because American Fail is very much a record for this moment. Darling has carefully crafted his song structures and chord progressions, yes, but he has also clearly and deeply considered what it means to be making not just any record at any time but this record, right now. Released on Election Day, American Fail is a protest album, a treatise on what ails the state of America, just as its title suggests. It takes issue with political extremism, systemic racism and late-stage capitalism. The nation’s ills are many.
These symptoms point towards the true American fail: American ideals of personal independence have expanded so ruthlessly that they have crowded out the very concepts of community and shared responsibility. Darling knows this and over 20 minutes he lays it out, as clear as any essay, as raucous as any punk show. Like the album he’s made, Darling is energized and spoiling for a fight. American Fail is his first punch, a show of creative force in service of a better world that does not yet exist. As the album ends, Darling invokes an image of Death, the fourth horseman, singing, “I’m on my way back into town, riding on a pale horse now, to burn this fucker down.”
The unasked question is simple. Will you try to stop him or will you join the fray?