album review: micah schnabel – the teenage years of the 21st century

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Micah Schnabel – The Teenage Years of the 21st Century. Out now, available here.

There’s plenty of evidence here on this site how I feel about Micah Schnabel, longtime frontman for Two Cow Garage and solo singer-songwriter, even if I haven’t been great about writing about his records in the last couple of years. It’s because I haven’t been great about writing about anything here up until this summer, for the last couple of years, not because Micah’s stuff hasn’t been great. (It has been great.) And, like everything else, his newest record, out today, is: great.

I’ve written, some here and mostly on Twitter, about how the last few years have been wretched and miserable in almost every way, but one way that they have not been is that these wretched miserable years have produced some phenomenally gorgeous protest records: American Aquarium’s Things Change, Dave Hause’s KICK, Hayes Carll’s What It Is. The Teenage Years is another one, and being self-released in December, I am a little afraid it’s going to disappear into year end lists. It shouldn’t. It really, really shouldn’t.

Opening track “An Introduction” is a quiet, quiet heartbreaking overview of, well, the 21st century – and then, with a misnomer title, “Gentle Always” lurches into a blast of country-twang-punk-rock fury, a perceptive song about how everyone is struggling, sharp and nasty and unforgiving of the generations who’ve fucked the generations to come:

cause we’re in the midst of a generational shift
the baton is being passed and the old folks are pissed
having to hand the power over to their kids
and the hand reaching out is a female fist

So it’s clear from the beginning that this record doesn’t intend to sugarcoat the awful bits, which is really just what I ever want from Micah’s songwriting. “so what’s the harm in being decent while we’re alive / and if that bothers you maybe ask yourself why” is where I started crying, by the way. My coworkers are used to it. Most of the music that’s been made by people whose songwriting I love in the last three years has made me cry. Micah’s been making me cry since 2007. 2019 is nothing new.

“How To Ride A Bike” has a chorus that won’t get out of my head:

being alive is so expensive
being alive is so expensive
and being dead is such a lousy alternative

This is an angry album, like I said, but there are so many beautiful threads of melody and lyric running throughout, tiny hopeful spots. “A Celebration” is a smug, sneering parody of middle-management and capitalist greed. “Filthy Cash”, a gallopingly cheerful sounding song about border control in Texas and New Mexico, pairs the horror of its subject with a driving, foot tapping melody line and a tribute to Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” smashed together with a fierce condemnation of current immigration policy.

“Death Defying Feats”, the midpoint on the record, is exactly the kind of forgiving and kind song about navigating anxiety and fear and sadness in modern times that I’d been waiting for since Frank Turner’s “Be More Kind” – they’re a perfect pair together. (Micah will be touring with Frank next year, in the UK, and I am so jealous of all y’all who will see that tour that I kind of want to barf. If I had the vacation time, I would give my eyeteeth to be a photographer on that tour.)

The two singles, “New Shoes” and “Emergency Room”, are each two sharp-eyed observations on things that are huge problems in the world right now, toxic masculinity and medical bills. (“Emergency Room” is the best love song about, you know, I love you so much but we can’t afford the bills if you get sick. It is a much better song than I have described.) Micah writes so clearly about things I’ve cried about and screamed about and tried to explain about and given up trying to explain about and tried to explain about again and screamed about some more, I wish I could make everyone I know and love, no matter their political beliefs, listen to this record. I feel like maybe Micah could explain it to the people I haven’t been able to explain it to.

Micah’s songwriting has always opened his veins right onto the page; I should not have been surprised that The Teenage Years of the 21st Century opens the nation’s veins onto the page and into his songbook.

“Remain Silent”, though, like “The Torch Committee” on Josh Ritter’s Fever Breaks, is the song I keep coming back to. The one I can’t stop hitting repeat on. It’s a song that a lot of you will probably find familiar; it’s a song about hard conversations to be had with people you love, people who you might not recognize anymore. Who might say the same about you. About things that to some of us seem horrifying but to others seem reasonable. About organizations that are legitimately anti-libraries and organizations that appear to be legitimately pro-children dying in schools and at the end of the day, what do you say to someone who looks like you, maybe very much looks like you, maybe you have their eyes and their hands and their smiles? What do you say to that person, who doesn’t understand your heart at all?

Well.

so micah what’s your point?

well before i go i wanted to try
and say something about hope
and not letting anger tear us apart
not carrying the weight of hate in our heart

there can be brilliance in failure
and there can be growth in pain

and all human beings we’re all basically the same
we’re 50% water we hide from the rain
we remember the faces but we forget the name
we’re wearing different uniforms
but we’re playing the same game

if it all falls apart we only have ourselves to blame

these words they are all that i have
well that and the right to remain silent
which feels too close to compliance
i know i have the right to remain silent

i just couldn’t today

I know I have the right to remain silent.

I just couldn’t today.

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