It’s been a few months since The Beths released their sophomore effort, Jump Rope Gazers. Upon release, the consensus was that JRG was a good album, but a clear step down from their debut, Future Me Hates Me. After all, JRG is noticeably less energetic than FMHM. It’s nice, sweet, and undeniably charming, but the album lacks the power and conviction that was so impressive on their debut.
But here’s the deal: this latest release has proven that The Beths are capable of shining with or without FMHM’s level of energy. Their music has always been full of great qualities. It should be no surprise that a slight change in style wasn’t going to keep their follow-up album from being wonderful. And wonderful it is: JRG is the AOTY, and it’s time to acknowledge that it’s every bit as good as The Beths’ previous work.
Besides, there’s still plenty of energy on JRG; look no further than the first two tracks.
“I’m Not Getting Excited” is driven by fast-paced guitar riffs and drums that maintain their aggression throughout. And while it’s nothing spectacular, the guitar solo near the end is still a welcome reminder that The Beths are perfectly capable of shredding.
Frontwoman Liz Stokes sings along to the fast pace with a sense of urgency. In the chorus, she cries out using the highest part of her vocal range. She sounds frustrated, which makes sense given that the lyrics are rife with pessimism: “I keep my body limp and I move with the wind.” “Violent dreams keep me awake, I wear the same face in the morning, a warning.” “Greet with goodbye.” Liz is passionately defiant in delivering her message in this song: that she shouldn’t be getting her hopes up, about anything. She elegantly sums up her cautiously pessimistic approach to life in the final verse: “I don’t enthuse, [I] keep my grip on joy loose.” Being too positive or hopeful creates potential for disappointment, anxiety, and loss. What’s there to get excited about, anyway, when there’s all this bad stuff that could happen, too? The Beths flawlessly articulate this concept here with some very thoughtful lyrics.
“Dying to Believe” is another power-pop bop that most Beths fans will love. The guys’ vocal contributions augment the catchiness of the song particularly well. Every time they pitch in, they’re always impactful. Like several other tracks on JRG, the vocal dynamic between Liz and the rest of the band has an almost conversation-like quality to it. When Liz pleads, “Go easy,” the guys quietly echo her in agreement. Likewise, when Liz insists “I’m still trying,” the rest of the band joins in to share her sentiment. Near the end of the song, the guys harmonize with each other, singing “aaaahhhooooo.” They are remarkably in sync with one another here, as is the satisfyingly airtight instrumentation.
The lyrics contain some very cute metaphors that primarily relate to a lack of self-confidence, such as: “I’m sorry for the way that I can’t hold conversations, It’s such a fragile thing to try support [sic] the weight of.” Admittedly, the inability to hold conversations is not a particularly novel theme in indie music these days. However, the way in which Liz compares it to physically supporting the weight of an object is uniquely endearing.
JRG’s title track is a blissful detour from the aforementioned lack of self-assuredness. Remember the worrying in the first track, and the insecurity in the second track? Poof, that’s all gone in “JRG,” and all that’s left is love, ❤️. Indeed, the title track can be accurately described as a love song. “JRG” explores the triumph and empowerment gained by being open with one’s feelings. In “JRG,” Liz opens up her heart and delivers one of the loveliest choruses in recent memory.
The blunt lyrics play an essential part in the song’s impact. In an interview with DIY mag, Liz made the point: “I think there’s nothing more scary than just using the words ‘I love you’ in a song. In a love song. I didn’t manage it on our first album, but I guess I was ready to for this one.” I agree: there are few phrases that make you feel more vulnerable. Telling someone that for the first time is a leap of faith that could end in embarrassment, heartbreak, or both.
But maybe the payoff can be worth it sometimes. Because as evidenced by Liz’s vocals, the catharsis felt by taking that leap can be magical. She sounds genuinely smitten on this track!
“Acrid,” on its face, is a reassuringly confident-sounding followup to the title track. Rhythmically speaking, The Beths sound impressively comfortable. For instance, the guitar riff that drives the verses is played with surgical precision. The vocal deliveries, unmistakably positive, sound right at home atop this riff. Liz proudly proclaims: “I want to run into you,” and the rest of the band joins in to rejoice in harmony.
Much of the imagery in the verses tells a different story, however: “Acrid, the smell of burning rubber is a daily feature, When I throw myself into reverse… [I’m] Like a ship out of commission, Like an arrow always missing.” Here, we see that despite Liz’s apparently cheerful demeanor, it’s not lost on her that the insecurity, worry, and propensity for avoidance explored on the first two songs won’t just magically disappear in a poof.
The mood of “Acrid” is a middle ground between the anxious, insecure sentiments of the first two tracks’ lyrics and the blissful, liberating expressions of love in the title track. The Beths are as talented as ever in treating the complexities of human emotion with careful nuance.
If “Acrid” is the relatively optimistic, hopeful afterglow from the title track, then “Do You Want Me Now” is the sudden, devastating crash from it. “DYWMN,” aptly named, explores the debilitating sadness caused by not knowing whether your feelings are reciprocated.
In the chorus, Liz again shows discomfort in being upfront with her feelings. The way she asks the question (see song title) here is tragically lacking in follow-through: “Do you want me now… or do you want to leave it out?” “Do you want me now… or is this way out of bounds? I won’t be mad about it if you want to go without it, I’ll see you around.”
From there, the lyrics get darker: “I can’t remember if I like myself at all.” One could argue that the concept of not liking yourself has already been beaten to death in indie rock. However, when taking into account the context set up by The Beths’ previous work, the line is still an immensely impactful point in the song. The Beths’ work has always been full of allusions to insecurity and lack of esteem. However, it’s always been thinly veiled by fun hooks and high energy. The Beths on FMHM never really hid the fact that things were not, in fact, totally fine. But DYWMN brings a whole new level of earnestness: it’s not cheeky or ironic. Nothing at all is there to veil the sadness and negativity of this song. Like the title track, DYWMN is unequivocally authentic.
By the time the second pre-chorus rolls around, The Beths sound like they’ve hit rock bottom. Liz laments: “In the dead of night, I’m a condemned site with the light on, Tell me what you decide on.” This last pre-chorus is a fascinating stretch of quietness. The instrumentals let up and provide space. Liz’s voice sounds distant and echoey, as if she’s shouting from inside a tunnel that’s miles away. “In the dead of night” is exactly what this one section of the song is.
“DYWMN” is without a doubt the saddest song The Beths have ever made. It’s a devastating emotional downturn from the bliss of “JRG” and the optimism of “Acrid.” There isn’t a shred of hope left after this song.
Just kidding, the back half of the album is significantly less depressing. “Out of Sight” expresses a relatively hopeful outlook on a long-distance relationship.
The Beths take care to craft this narrative shift with full context: It’s not like the pessimistic vibe of JRG ever completely goes away. On the chorus, Liz reiterates her refusal to have an unconditionally positive outlook: “Though I know way down, That I am out of heart when out of sight.” However, more reassuring lyrics follow: “I keep a flame burning inside, if you need to bum a light.” Through another charming metaphor, The Beths establish that, perhaps, not all hope is lost.
Let’s be clear here: JRG is a god damn rollercoaster. But the shifts in its mood are subtle and deliberate. It doesn’t sound like a random, disjointed assortment of moods. On the contrary: it sounds like a perfectly plausible sequence of one person’s situations, attitudes, and emotions. The realism of JRG is what makes the album so successful in being relatable.
The downside of this middle-to-back stretch of the album is that its song quality doesn’t quite match the front half. The melodies in “Out of Sight” don’t stand out particularly well. And “Don’t Go Away” is certainly the weakest track on the album. The hook isn’t nearly interesting enough to compensate for how tiringly repetitive it is. Furthermore, its lyrics aren’t as thoughtful as most of the other songs.
“Mars the God of War” is also one of the weaker tracks on JRG, but it’s still a good song. The instrumentation is aggressive, and the lyrics are confrontational. The manner in which Liz shouts “Can’t you just go to hell!” is another great example of her knack for authenticity on this album. When her lyrics sound angry, so does she.
JRG starts winding down with “You Are a Beam of Light,” a gentle acoustic ballad. The guitar brings a simple, unobtrusive melody. In the second half of the song, some additional instrumentation (I believe violin and piano but I’m not entirely sure) is introduced. All of the instruments compliment each other beautifully here.
The lyrics are delightfully wholesome: “You Are a Beam of light, maybe that’s why your battery runs dry.” This is such a nice and compassionate message! Everybody’s batteries can run dry; it’s part of being human. The Beths acknowledge this reality in a refreshingly positive light.
JRG closes with a track about being just shy of sure, a common theme with several of the earlier tracks.
But the differences between “Just Shy of Sure” and a track like “I’m Not Getting Excited” are more notable than the similarities. At the beginning of JRG, Liz is primarily focused on worrying about the future. On the other hand, she begins the closer with an honest and thorough reflection on her past experiences with romance.
The Beths’ outlook on the future is also noticeably less stubborn here. For example, you wouldn’t find a lyric like this on the opener: “Maybe that’s a swing, Hey, you can’t win without entering, Are you cool to lose everything? Roll the dice.” Sure – Liz prudently continues to acknowledge the possibility of disaster. But she sounds more open than ever in considering a more optimistic and adventurous approach toward life.
JRG ultimately ends with The Beths looking ahead. Not everything is sorted out. The future isn’t clear, nor will it ever be. But hey, maybe that’s okay.