The last few months have been tumultuous, but the sea of new music released in and around this time has provided many a reprieve from the chaos. I’ve recently had the opportunity to catch up on music released by my favorite bands shortly before the pandemic began, like the Cold War Kids’ “New Age Norms 1” from this past November. The band takes on a newly prescriptive tone right away with the EP’s first track, “Complainer,” which urges the listener to focus more on doing rather than talking, while “4th of July” discourages complacency and American exceptionalism. I’ve also been given something to look forward to, cherishing the three singles released in anticipation of The Killers’ upcoming album (yes, they have other songs besides “Mr. Brightside”). The mystical synths and nostalgic vocals on “Caution” remind me of their most overlooked gem of an album, “Battle Born.” The Strokes even put out an entire album in the midst of the turmoil, as “The New Abnormal” in April marked their first LP release since 2013. Julian Casablancas sounds bored and over it as always, but his tired drawl took on a new, more somber meaning as coronavirus guidelines for me and the New York City-based band were, at the time, their most restrictive. “Ode to the Mets,” the album’s last track and a shoutout to underdogs everywhere, tugged at my heartstrings as I watched my city bravely weather the public health threat (even though I’m a Yankees fan). The themes in all of this music are startlingly relevant. But one album has captured these themes and my attention like no other.
Grouplove, best known for their bright indie-pop anthem with an iconic baseline and piano riff, “Tongue Tied,” released “Healer” on March 13, shortly before the ten-year anniversary of their first show and shortly before the pandemic bore down with such force upon New York City. Prior to this album, their music often called to mind a conflict between youthful exuberance, nostalgia for even more youthful days and reckoning with the realities of growing older. On the surface, their previous albums seem largely upbeat, focused more on the youthful exuberance side of things. It’s not until you listen closely or dig a little into Grouplove lore that you notice a more nuanced message. “Tongue Tied” and “Naked Kids,” the latter being about a beach day spent skinny dipping with childhood friends, lie within an album titled “Never Trust a Happy Song.” “Ways to Go,” a seemingly feel-good bop (with another attention-grabbing baseline) about an unexpected love affair on the album “Spreading Rumours,” actually paints a picture of a problematic relationship bordering on obsessive. The idea of “spreading rumours” calls to mind an insidious background force threatening one’s perceptions of the world. Youthful exuberance can certainly get you into trouble, even if you try your best to ignore potential consequences lurking just beneath the surface.
“Healer” brings these conflicts out into the open. Just as the divisions and inequalities in this country have been laid bare by this latest public health crisis, the clashes bubbling in the psyches of Grouplove’s members rose to the surface when co-lead vocalist Hannah Hooper learned that she needed brain surgery last summer. In an interview with Spin, Hooper opened up about the experience. Six years ago, she was diagnosed with a cavernous malformation, a blood vessel abnormality that is prone to leakage. Sometimes, these malformations remain asymptomatic. Hooper’s had for five years, until one night when everything changed. Her arm started tingling and gave out. Upon further examination, doctors found that she needed immediate surgery. The outcomes of such a surgery are variable, but luckily for Hooper, it was successful. The band got back to work on “Healer,” which was already underway, but something else was different. Drummer and producer Ryan Rabin, a founding member, left the band in 2017, and his absence still stung. Needless to say, this album marked a significant test for the fledgling indie quintet, perhaps their greatest yet.
“Healer” sounds like a conversation between the two lead vocalists, Hooper and her partner, Christian Zucconi. The couple welcomed a daughter, Willa, in 2015. Contemplating their own mortalities after Hooper’s health scare, their new responsibilities as parents and the impermanence of relationships after Rabin’s departure, Hooper and Zucconi’s voices offer opposing takes on their new circumstances within the larger context of changes in the world. And their voices are fearlessly up front about it.
This is immediately evident: in contrast to the 20-second buildup to the main instrumentals in “Tongue Tied,” “Deleter” pulls no punches. Beginning with a yell of “one, two, three, four!” accompanied by a jarring piano riff, an equally jarring electric guitar riff begins. Zucconi enters as the guitar starts to subside, and begins mercilessly bashing the ills of modern society and the false hope and complacency that comes with them, urging the listener to wake up. “All this time I thought you were a leader/it turns out you’re only a deleter,” Zucconi screams in the face of civilization. Too long we have blamed ourselves for our shortcomings, when in fact, we are severely limited by our institutions, a sad truth that Zucconi frames in the question “Am I anxious or just modern?” He later sounds a hopeful note, saying, “show ’em what you’re doing/and how we built a lighthouse/out of all these godforsaken ruins,” but is ultimately despondent: “The world will recover when she puts us in the past” implies that it will take the fall of social institutions to truly restore order to the world. In the meantime, Zucconi encourages us to look within ourselves for comfort, saying in the line from which the album gets its name, “All this time I’m burning with a fever/it turns out I’ve always been my healer.”
There remains an element of youth in Zucconi’s defiant call to action, but I would put “Deleter” squarely in the “reckoning with the realities of growing older” category of Grouplove songs. The next track, “Inside Out,” confirms the role of Zucconi’s voice on the album, although it is much more subdued. “I think I know what I’ve always failed to see,” he begins quietly after a more “Tongue Tied”-eque instrumental buildup, “that nothing in this world comes at you for free.” He has come to terms with the harsh realities of the world in which he must raise his daughter. His innocence that shone on “Tongue Tied” and “Naked Kids” all but gone, Zucconi’s voice on “Inside Out” urges us to make the best with what we’ve got by reaching deep within ourselves.
Hooper makes her first appearance as lead vocalist in the third song, “Expectations.” She seems to be talking directly to Zucconi’s voice from the first two tracks, pushing him to not be so serious. “Let’s let go of obligation,” she croons, “just dance,” her playful tone matching the acoustic guitar and maracas. As I listen to this line, a picture forms in my mind of Hooper, who opted not to remain in the room with Zucconi when her doctor went over her MRI, urging him to not worry so much while he anxiously replays the physician’s every word in his head.
The next track, “The Great Unknown,” is my personal favorite, and features Zucconi in the lead again. He starts by painting a picture of a hard-working and satisfied farmer, helped along by the reappearance of the electric guitar. But in the second verse, Zucconi’s message from the first two tracks returns: “Then one morning, I woke from my dream/Saw my landlord staring at me/He said, ‘Pay me or you’ll have to leave/You got ’til the end of the day.’” The farmer wasn’t real; it was just an illusion shattered when the dreamer’s landlord came knocking. But in the larger sense, Zucconi is again lamenting the drawbacks of the modern world and the harsh realities of adulthood. “Nothing really lasts forever,” Zucconi mourns after his bubble is burst, only to realize that we should not attempt to hold onto ephemeral pleasures just because they’re familiar and comforting: “You-I, me-I, she-I must go/Into the great unknown.” Despite the vocalist dealing with themes of impermanence, the main electric guitar riff continues throughout most of the song, symbolizing what Zucconi has come to understand: you are the only constant throughout your life, and helping yourself is paramount to getting through it.
But for every Zucconi-led rollercoaster of reckoning that inevitably ends with a motivational statement, a Hooper-led one starts by telling him to cut it out with the existentialism. “Youth” (see what I mean about the themes becoming more apparent?) begins with “You’re so serious, always in your head, just makin’ plans.” She prompts him to be in the moment in this song and in “Ahead of Myself,” although the latter also represents a time of reflection for Hooper’s voice. Whereas “Youth” has upbeat, fast-paced guitar and synth, the instrumentation in “Ahead of Myself” is slower and much more minimalist, putting the spotlight on Hooper’s sweet vocals. Perhaps her carefree ways are catching up to her: “Should I reconsider all the side effects before I get ahead of myself?” Ultimately, she recognizes the need for some seriousness, but also tells her counterpart that you don’t have to be serious all the time; even when the world is in crisis, you need to allow yourself some time to just have fun.
The album comes to an end with “This is Everything,” a ballad in which the partners join forces. A fitting conclusion to their back-and-forth, it calls for moderation and reconciliation. Hooper sings softly in the chorus, “This is even more than I asked for/this is even more than I planned on.” Even the supposedly carefree do care and struggle sometimes. Zucconi hears her plea in the verses and answers by telling her that he’s prepared to go to bat for her no matter what happens. He won’t give up just because the overwhelming world wants him to: “I will cross a hundred roads low/Lookin’ at your photo/Crawling’ out these holes though.” Seriousness does come in handy, even if it can be painful.
The landlord specter in “The Great Unknown” has only become more relevant as we face an eviction crisis in this country. The line “Tell your friends that you’re okay/You’re never gonna see them anyway” in “Deleter” makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up—perhaps the band was pointing to an increasingly virtual social life at the time, but there is no way they could have known just how virtual we would be now. Similarly, the moment of reconciliation on the closing track carries even more weight as we enter the final months leading up to possibly the most polarized election our country has ever seen. We are all our own “Healers” first, but that does nothing to diminish the power of human connection and cooperation.