by Sam Woodring (@mistergoblin1)
J. Robbins is regaling me with the details of the recording of Talk Talk’s masterpiece, Laughing Stock. He is at his most animated when telling a story like this, or describing in vivid detail a strange, grim work such as John Carpenter’s “Dark Star,” or just about anything by J.G. Ballard. He is an appreciator of art and artists, which comes through in his work as an engineer/producer at his studio, the Magpie Cage in Baltimore. There, he offers artist-friendly prices for his studio services which include a keen ear, remarkable knowhow, and the patience to sit and listen to a particular bass drum hit with the kind of attention you’d usually reserve for listening to a 911 operator describe how to perform CPR.
Appreciative though he may be, Robbins is not immune to the bullshit that sometimes comes with art and the people who make it. After he recounts the details of how the late great Mark Hollis insisted that sessions take place overnight lit only by particular oil lamps, I ask if anyone has requested similarly strange accommodations at his studio. “No,” he responds–then a beat later, “but I don’t think I would concede to that. No one’s art is more important than me being able to wake up and take my kid to school.”
This quote might help to contextualize his new record, Un-becoming, which arrives on the heels of his old band Jawbox’s reunion and was recorded in the cracks of work and family obligations and between rounds of video game sessions with his son. Does this mean that Robbins, now straddling the line between musician, producer, and father, has strayed from punk and into the feared territory of “dad rock” on his new record? In a word, no. Perhaps it means that punk rock ethos can expand to realms beyond music. If one can be a “punk” musician, surely one can be a “punk” parent, engineer, physical therapist, cook, public defender, etc. This isn’t to say that his new album doesn’t have a little more in common with Tom Petty than previous efforts, but in fairness, Petty was arguably pretty punk, too.
Recorded over this recent period of great national upheaval, Un-becoming is fittingly concerned with the changes that have defined both Robbins’ life and those that have impacted our collective experience of late. On both “Radical Love” and “Our Own Devices,” he references a vague overnight shift that left the world topsy turvy. When asked about this, he says “It’s touching on a few different things. I mean, there’s no way that it’s not in some way about the election of Donald Trump.” Robbins has made it “a mission to communicate more clearly” which, on this record, often involves more overt political barbs, such as the hilarious and uncharacteristically sassy, “I had a dream I was born again as a corporation/Fuck the Future, LLC” from “Citizen.” This new directness doesn’t relegate his lyrics to a single interpretation, though, as he continues describing the aforementioned change motif by saying “it’s also about a more general phenomenon of thinking you have things pretty much on track, and then one little change happens and you’re completely lost at sea. One thing we learned over and over again after getting my son’s diagnosis of Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) is that it’s not smart to take things for granted.”
It seems like an aural consequence of this realization is that, both lyrically and musically, this album feels like it was made without hesitation. Of the punk culture he was indoctrinated in in his early days, Robbins says that “one of the things that was sort of an unforgivable sin was to just be obvious... part of the project was to make sure it wasn’t too clear.” By contrast, the songs on Un-becoming are only as complex or obscure as they need to be. With help from his wildly capable Office of Future Plans and Burning Airlines collaborators, the songs streamline in order to get to the heart of the anger, confusion, and the ultimate hope that undergirds the lyrics. They still feel considered, but there’s a fun unbridled energy to tracks like “Abandoned Mansions” and “Citizen” that make them feel like they just tumbled out without fear of being misperceived.
So yes—Jawbox, is reuniting. Whatever, I’m excited too. But, before you finish this interview and immediately go back and jam For Your Own Special Sweetheart for the nth time, I’d encourage you to change that out for Un-becoming because—and I don’t say this lightly—it might be some of his best work. With decades of material and a well-honed sound under his belt you might think Robbins would be out of surprises, but “Radical Love” may be one of the most affecting songs in his catalogue, with hair raising chord changes and a warm, empathetic vocal performance. Additionally, for those who yearn for Robbins’ more rocking days of yore, the title track goes as hard as anything Jawbox ever did. So go ahead and give it a spin, “FF=66” will still be there when you’re done, I promise. You just might not need it as much as you thought you did.