by Mike LeSuer (@zebraabraham)
Pope isn’t the first band to feature a pair of vocalists trading off songwriting duties every other track, nor is their infectious brand of slacker revivalism distinctive enough to alert the unfamiliar listener to a continuous rift in the trio’s tracklists. Analogous to the not-necessarily-supergroup Wolf Parade, Pope pulls off a unique balancing act which challenges the songwriters’ creative needs (and status as lifelong friends) against the wrath of a music-consuming public’s unconscionable demand for a coherent 40 minutes of listening—one abrupt transition and, like a Scyther in the Safari Zone, the listener dips back into the brush where they slash the album’s rating down from a Pitchfork 9.2 to a normal 9.2.
With 2015’s Fiction, Pope managed a coherent debut which binged and purged an impressive gamut of ‘90s alt-rock subcultures across twelve tracks (“Born in the 90’s, never left” reads their epitaph). In place of Spencer Krug’s warbling tenor lilts Matthew Seferian’s shoegaze wisp, while Dan Boeckner’s sensual rasp is swapped for Alex Skalany’s grungy enunciations. Naturally, the album was released through New Orleans’ Community Records, a collective of artists perpetually trapped in a Polaroid of last century’s historic get-togethers as literalized in Fiction’s cover, a photo taken of three figures, who presumably comprise Pope, from their high school days.
In reality, of course, Wolf Parade came of age at the tail end of an era where rock bands were still paid actual money for their music, permitting the band a relatively lucrative existence between releases. True Talent Champion, Pope’s overdue follow-up to Fiction, presents the bleak, fractured narrative currently facing the contemporary rock band. In addition to Skalany and Seferian coordinating individually-penned songs, the duo—with Atticus Lopez on drums—overcome the variabilities inherent in balancing songwriting and touring as members of an additional band (Donovan Wolfington), as well as their respective solo projects (New Holland, Matt Surfin’). On top of that, Champion was written over the course of two years of turbulent change, further diversifying the young Pope’s already-heterogenous portfolio.
But Pope, verifiable talent champions that they are, handle turbulence gracefully. Rather than cramming ten disparate capsules of vapid nineties novelty into a format most digestible to listeners, the group capitalizes on their untethered state, for example, by pinning a breezy Swirlies-indebted pop tune on the tail end of the grungy “Make Your Mind Up’s” slow-building anxiety. This same sense of maladjustment proves thematic through each dose of slacker rock injected with a genuine grunge angst and opaque lyrics straight from a trepidatious Beck’s wonky unconscious. “Talk me out of it,” intones Skalany, who claims to pen his lyrics according to which words sound best with the music he writes, “before I drive with my eyes closed again.” His acerbic recitation of the record’s title as a personal identifier immediately afterwards provides the consummation of irony necessary to fully gauge the band’s new ethos.
While “Make Your Mind Up” and “Talk Me Out of It” exemplify Skalany’s anxious unconscious in a way that somehow always reverts to self-destructive clarity (from the former: “you’ll bruise your tongue blaming consequence”), “Lil Stevie” and “Slice” offer rejoinders basting in futility and agnosticism, Seferian’s bubblegum delivery (and synth flourishes from New Orleans’s DIY Cool Uncle Tyler Scurlock on the latter) further confuse the mental state of Champion’s complex message and impressively subtle melodies. With less focus on Jurassic riffs and more attention on each member’s convoluted non-fictions, Pope remains a crucial voice in their community’s scene, as well as an apt commentary on the significantly broader dysphoria of millennialism.