By Venus Rittenberg, Contributor
[Run for Cover Records; 2019]
Highlights: “glass beach”, “orchids”, “neon glow”
Pop-punk and emo is a combination as old as the genres themselves. What do you get when you add a splash of jazz, a touch of Auto-Tune and a pinch of synthesizers reminiscent of Mort Garson’s Mother Earth’s Plantasia? You get the first glass beach album, the aptly named debut from glass beach. The album is one of the most creative pop punk records of all time. It’s fun, tender and playful. However, as lighthearted as the music is on The first glass beach album, the lyrics rarely match this upbeat tone. The album is full of worrisome recurring themes like mental illness, abuse, gender identity and distance (physical or emotional), but also has hopeful messages of love and togetherness. It’s an album that, at times, feels like a hug from an old friend, but at others, brings me to tears.
The album kicks off with two tracks that are very similar musically: “classic j dies and goes to hell part 1” and “bedroom community”. “classic j dies and goes to hell part 1” finds J. McClendon, lead singer, reminiscing on less lonely times. Toward the end of the song, McClendon, who uses they/them/their pronouns, provides a specific example about “Friday nights, foggy streets and Christmas light.” A backing chorus, trumpet and piano makes the song feel like a Christmas song. I discovered this album in December, and walking around the lit-up town at night to this song really helped the album click.
Following the opener is “bedroom community”. “bedroom community” narrates a third-person story about a girl who hates her life and spends most of her time locked in her bedroom. Throughout the song, McClendon cites reasons why the girl is unhappy; yet her father, who has good intentions, misses all of the reasons and blames her attitude and other mislead factors. This is an important song, as it subtly introduces many of the themes that are dissected further throughout the later tracks. For a song about depression and isolation, the music really makes you want to dance — the perfect song for our current times.
“neon glow”, the first single for the album, describes a couple fleeing the apocalypse. The song could be interpreted as being about the literal apocalypse, but also can be viewed as a metaphor for escaping an abusive and toxic environment. This song contains my favorite vocals from McClendon, specifically when they sing “we don’t need to sleep, it’s the weekend”. Their voice hitting a high note on “end” leaves me breathless every time. McClendon also makes their feelings toward their fellow escapee clear on this song. Lines about how cool and impressive they are are as frequent as lines about needing to escape. There’s a feeling of urgency, coupled with love.
This leads perfectly into “cold weather”, an adorable love song. The song takes small and seemingly insignificant things about being in love, such as staying up late to text, and presents them in a very romantic way. McClendon also talks about missing unpleasant things like cold weather, before realizing they don’t really miss those things; they miss the person they’re in love with. We know they are in love with them, thanks to the incredible line “I think it’s so gay that we really both feel the same way”. For a song titled “cold weather”, it feels very warm, like cuddling with someone under a blanket and sharing some hot chocolate.
Directly following “cold weather” is “calico”, a cute little number about finding a calico cat and giving him a happy life as a spoiled house cat. It’s significant that the cat is gendered male, as male calico cats are extremely rare. Given the way gender is addressed throughout this album, this seems intentional. It’s not a stretch to see this as a subtle stab at gender norms.
“glass beach” comes at the midpoint of the album, and is the most intense song on the whole record. McClendon yells frantically for seven and a half minutes trying to console a loved one who was abused by their parents. The urgency in their voice paired with the fast, blaring guitars imbue a dire feeling in the listener. McClendon assures the subject that they are there for them and aren’t going anywhere. What could be considered the thesis of the song is yelled over the music: “No one who loves you should make you feel unsafe / No, no one who loves you should make you feel alone.” There’s a breakdown shortly after this as the song nearly fades to silence before McClendon sings of their desires for the two of them to escape. Fantasizing about them crashing on various friends’ couches, McClendon says, “We’ll always live like we’re hopeless kids.” This is a stellar line about the lasting damage of childhood abuse, as it often leads to maladjustment and a failure to act one’s age (whether older or younger). McClendon desires for the two of them to live the lives that were taken from them, even though they’re older now. One of the final passages sees McClendon telling the subject how they feel about them. They want to pretend to forget all the pain they’ve been through and just be with their friends, surrounded with love. The passage ends with McClendon shouting, “It’s so hard to say that I fucking need you too.” This shows the mutuality of their relationship — they both comfort each other. With this, the guitar explodes into a chaotic riff, and the song reaches its climax. In a way, this feels like the climax of the album. It mentions nearly every theme this album deals with: escapism, abuse, suicide, love. It’s a lot for one song, even though it is long.
The second half of the album dials back the intensity. “yoshi’s island” is an upbeat song about a transgender woman whose parents don’t understand her. At times, the song is from the perspective of her parents: “Does it hurt to say you care about your son?” or “I won’t say ‘she’ even though I know you want me to / I know that it’s hard but I swear I still love you.” The lyrics also talk about violence toward trans women and how scary it can be. It’s understood that this is part of what fuels her parents’ nonacceptance — they worry about her safety. Her parents’ lack of support pushed the girl to self-medicate — ordering estradiol (synthetic estrogen) and spironolactone (testosterone blockers) online from Vanuatu, a small island near Australia (hence the track’s title), which allows her to bypass the complicated process of obtaining hormone replacement therapy in America. The song picks up a bit at the end, reaching a blazing conclusion before fading to silence and leading to the closing track.
“orchids” is a fantastic end to a fantastic record. Gentle verses build into explosive choruses. The song makes use of apocalyptic imagery, similar to “neon glow” and also mentions neon light, further connecting the two songs. However, “neon glow” seems much more hopeful with its message of escaping the possible disaster, whereas “orchids” ends the album with the line “there’s no tears no celebration.” Musically, the song is overwhelmingly emotional and the lyrics are vague and upsetting, leaving the listener on edge and curious. It’s an interesting way to end an album and leaves my mouth watering for more glass beach.
glass beach popped out of nowhere, but I’m glad I came across them. Considering how briefly this album has been in my life, it’s impressive how it’s already cemented itself among my favorites. The band deserves so much attention and recognition for their playful music and intriguing lyricism. It’s bound to be prophetic of where pop-punk is headed this decade, and any fan of the genre should give it a spin.