I Look Like Shit, We Cool?, WORRY., POST-, NO DREAM, and now HELLMODE. Jeff Rosenstock’s solo run, begun in 2012 after over a decade of work with pop punk staples The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry, is nothing if not consistently anxious. With the exception of SKA DREAM, a surprise ska-reimagining of one of those albums (I’ll let you guess which one), each new release from him continues a certain vibe – upbeat but with themes of decline; energetically punk but nihilistic about if we can really change the system; wishing to start afresh, even when the regrets cling like barnacles. If I had to pick one thing to criticize the most beloved pop punk musician of the past decade for, it would be that his consistency could be construed as stagnancy.
Compare “And what’s the difference if you like being alive; Yeah, what’s the difference when we’re all just gonna die?” to “When I drown myself in chemicals; Do I even have a choice?” and then to “Oh the weight of the world makes me feel like; The future is gone.” Could you pick out which lyrics are from a song released in 2012, versus one released in 2016 and another in 2023? This isn’t an uncommon issue among artists – I could just as easily point out how some (all) indie musicians have been singing about the same awful breakup for years – but with Jeff it feels like even his long-time listeners don’t wonder if it’s all getting old. What is it about Jeff Rosenstock’s artistry that makes HELLMODE such a critically welcomed release, when thematically it is just another Jeff Rosenstock album?
The first, more objective half of the answer is this: each subsequent Rosenstock album is, sonically, a new experience. ILLS is the lo-fi, wholly solo one, conceptualized and composed entirely by Jeff; We Cool? is the anthemic, explosive one, filled out by newly recruited backing musicians; Worry is the magnum opus, perfectly anxious and composed in such a way that it feels like one continuous song. I could go on, but the point is that even if Jeff’s outlook remains the same throughout his discography, musically he is always changing, keeping his projects from sounding the same even when their lyrical content is.
In the case of HELLMODE, this is the first Jeff Rosenstock album to be produced and mixed with mind paid to the hit pop punk albums of the 90s – Green Day’s Dookie, the Goo Goo Doll’s A Boy Named Goo, and other hits. To get in the mindset for this, they booked time at Hollywood’s EastWest Studios (famous for being ground zero for all kinds of classic records, most notably Jeff’s all-time favorite: Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys.) As a result, HELLMODE stands as the clearest and cleanest Rosenstock album yet, solo or otherwise. Just listen to “HEALMODE,” for example:
Yes, I know you think the snail is cute, but that’s not what’s important here. This is a huge change of pace from NO DREAM, which was practically bludgeoning the listener with its guitars on every song. For the transition towards this sound to be so seamless, performed just as comfortably as ever, is a testament to the sheer talent of Jeff and co. Songs like “3 SUMMERS” and “SOFT LIVING” almost beg appreciation for how good they sound. How many pop punk acts are able pull that off, successfully changing sounds with each album? How many even attempt to?
So, that’s the first reason as to why HELLMODE can be so beloved, even if it isn’t saying anything new. The other, more subjective reason has to do with the lyrics themselves, and why an exception can be made for them. On the album’s penultimate track, “GRAVEYARD SONG,” Jeff sings about being hurt by other people, and why you shouldn’t be afraid to prioritize your mental well-being over a relationship with someone who won’t apologize. A recurring theme on the album is pain – the guilt he feels having inflicted it on others, in addition to the hurt he experiences having been afflicted by it – and here it comes up in the form of genuine advice: “When someone causes pain; It’s okay to push them away; To get unstuck and let the sun; Pull the flowers out of the mud.” Contrary to the tendency most pop punk acts have towards venting for the sake of venting, Jeff Rosenstock actively works to reassure the listener, to make them feel less alone and more secure.
This, too, is common in his old work, ranging back to the intro to We Cool? (“Malt liquor doesn’t make you young”) and it exemplifies why he’s become something of a comfort artist for his fans. Not everyone is able to relate to Modern Baseball’s post-breakup angst, or to pierce mewithoutYou’s layers of metaphor, but anyone who has struggled under capitalism can empathize with Jeff when he sings “How hard can you go; And for how long can you sustain it; When the force that fights back don’t ever relax?” Same goes for the expressions of regret on “WILL U STILL U” and “LIFE ADMIN.” Jeff Rosenstock’s fanbase understands these worries, how they linger on for years, and so, for us, each new album is simply another reassurance that we’re not alone in our struggles.
HELLMODE works because it is consistent with the rest of Jeff Rosenstock’s discography, both in its musical evolution and its thematic familiarity. Though it isn’t the lightning-in-a-bottle moment that WORRY. was, it still is an impressively clean addition to the modern pop punk landscape, nearly guaranteed to be year-end favorite for any fan of the genre. HELLMODE is yet another example of why Jeff may just be the most consistently good pop punker out there.