Jenny Besetzt: Goner | ★★★ | Self Aware | July 7

Goner feels like an album that could have blown up for Jenny Besetzt several years ago.

It still could, mind you. The Raleigh band’s best album yet, Goner is an alternately swirling and pounding vision of ’80s-indebted dream pop that is dark but engaging, pessimistic about relationships and the state of the world but still clinging to shreds of hope.

A struggle that is very real.

That Goner’s particular brand of nostalgia sounds a bit dated only enhances these themes. The vision it conjures of Future Islands dance memes and Passion Pit festival dominance inject a sharp tug from the passage of time. The tropes it tweaks are well-trod, apt reflections of the compulsion to look backward when confronted with harsh realities like the ones that leader John Wollaber tackles in the lyrics.

One unforgiving reality that hangs over the seven-year gap between Goner and Jenny Besetzt’s last album, Tender Madness, is the pandemic. This makes the band’s continued and impressive honing of a sound that peaked in the 2010s—before the world got put on pause—both hard to criticize and intensely relatable.

It’s 2023, but, in one way or several, we’re all picking up where we left off at the close of the previous decade. So perhaps it’s the perfect time for Jenny Besetzt to show back up—sounding largely the same, yes, but also better than they ever have.

Wollaber’s growth as a singer is especially impressive. His frequently deployed low-register affect could come off as a bit forced. Now, his expressive oscillations between that artifice and a softer, more sonorous delivery heighten the record’s emotional ups and downs.

As shimmery guitar and keys and muscular bass and drums fuse into a propulsive force on the title track, Wollaber laments that “Everyone feels like a goner tonight,” turning to the example of Jonathan Brandis, the young star of ‘90s TV shows such as seaQuest DSV who killed himself at 27. The singer murmurs Brandis’ name before booming out, “Where are you? / Are you still lost at sea?” alarmed at the prospect of being pulled into a similarly dark place.

The musical strides made by the band push the album’s emotional catharsis even further. The slow build on “Abridged Dream (Disintegration)” from percolating dark wave to Deafheaven-worthy fury is a perfect delivery system for Wollaber’s escalating consternation at the feeling of “Disintegration / Life folds in at / The corners and forgets us / Grind it into dust / Modern men / Children of industry.”

And the music is just as apt during the album’s restrained moments. On the opener “Blonde and Blue,” reverberating drum hits and warm guitar conjure echoing, steamy vistas  that expertly gird a multi-tracked chorus of Wollaber’s divergent vocals as “cotton candy skies” get tinged with regret (“The sun going down / On the trailer park”) and the narrator “Thumb(ing) down the edges of / Letters from you / In the county jail.”

Does Jenny Besetzt’s sound still line up with current trends? Perhaps not. But Goner doesn’t suffer for it.

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