by Kris Handel (@khandel84)
J. Robbins has had an extremely distinguished career in music over the past 30 years both as a musician in seminal bands like Government Issue, Jawbox, and Burning Airlines, and as a producer. Robbins’ career has been marked by knotty aggression in his music, especially evident in his work with Jawbox, as well as a fine ear for pop-smithing and songcraft as both a performer and producer/advisor to countless artists. Robbins’ influence is unquestioned and after 30-something years involved in music, he has stepped to the fore with his first solo record, Un-Becoming, that incorporates all he’s learned along the way with some new twists and turns thrown in. Un-Becoming continues to follow the path Robbins’ previous works laid the foundations of and incorporates all his experiences and changing landscapes of music and society over the past few decades.
“Anodyne” kicks off the record with trademark crunching guitars as Robbins croons over a refreshing pop melody that gives way to some beautiful cello playing of Gordon Withers. Robbins is in fine form on “Anodyne” and a song like “Your Majesty” that provide a 1-2 punch of incredibly strong power-pop. Robbins and band chug and churn along on the latter with yearning emotion that hasn’t dissipated over the years with a finer melodic sense that shines through everything. Robbins hasn’t lost touch with an underlying frustration or anger that has always been present in his songwriting unleashing lines of vitriol like; “A masterpiece of vanity/The paint is peeling/It’s a real shit-show/but I wish you well/The cell/Where I’m serving at the pleasure/Of Your Majesty…”.
Robbins has never been afraid to reach into the political landscape with his songwriting and that is no different on this outing, though he approaches these subjects with urgency and power that is remarkable. Robbins doesn’t pull any punches especially on songs like “Citizen” and “Firelight” which rail against things like jingoism and the power that the ultra-rich and businesses wield to the detriment of the majority. “Citizen” includes some fantastic guitar leads that knife through the distortion and jittery rhythm section. “Soldier On” is a bit of call to mobilize and push through the struggles of the marginalized that blares its way through as Robbins extolls working against outside forces doing their best to hold people down.
The title track starts off with some foreboding guitar harmonics that give way to ferocious and angular guitar work wiggling through bruising booming bass-work and acerbic lyrics. There’s a bit of a new-wave inflection here that lends some intricacy amongst the power in the musicianship and biting attacks like “Get your guns/For to greet the Gilded Age/Un-becoming/We peel the layers away/To brittle bones/Decades of decay/Then we trade/The mirror for the masquerade…”. The disgust is not veiled and is aimed at the top of society, but also the lack of accountability of a nation that strives for and rewards excess and greed. Robbins’ frustration is well articulated here and his pointed assertions and honest directness carry great weight and his desire to see society and individuals do better is quite evident.
“Un-Becoming” shows itself to be a powerful work of intertwining the personal and political that Robbins really is remarkable at developing. Him and his crew have created a piece that melds so much into a meticulous and fierce statement of desire and passion. There is no lack of energy in the entire record and Robbins has clearly honed his craft and brought some new textures to the fore with a bit of a new wave feel amid the crunching punk that the listener has become accustomed to. There’s a fire here that burns through everything, as well as a lot of distrust and anger, however it’s clear that these emotions are important to not overlook so there is hope for a better future for all. It’s taken a while for Robbins to make a release under his own name, but Un-Becoming is brimming with such energy, life, and honesty, it’s something to be truly proud of and should be embraced with open arms.