Timing is everything. We can act like we can remove art from context, but it’s hard to kid ourselves into believing that our thoughts can be compartmentalized. There was a moment on Young Jesus’ 2020 breakthrough Welcome to Conceptual Beach that captured the dire hopelessness of the times better than just about anything echoing in our current, increasingly cramped quarters. The album’s liner notes denoted that the song “Meditations” came about as a result of the increasingly limitless four-piece rock band improvising in the studio. While this gave the Chicago band a chance to flex their adventurous side—moving past their early noodly beginnings as an exciting force in the burgeoning emo revival—it also delivered a primal scream from lead singer and multi-instrumentalist John Rossiter, one that felt like a rallying cry for those of us who felt paralyzed by fear of the apparent end of the lives we once knew.
As the spacious free-form flute- and synth-assisted jam swells to its apex, he begins to repeat the mantra, “I want to be around and live it.” It’s a perfect encapsulation of the themes conveyed throughout the album’s seven sprawling songs, as Rossiter does the work exploring his own feelings around faith, acceptance and living life to the fullest. But Conceptual Beach remains such an emotional trigger because of the strangeness of our lives and just how out of reach those concepts felt around that time. For the band’s follow-up Shepherd Head, Rossiter and the band are left to consider the aftermath with a record that yearns to understand what comes after we finally leave this world.
Listening to the four records the band had made before Shepherd Head, you wouldn’t exactly call Young Jesus a “chill” band. Rossiter fesses up to that. In the album’s press notes, he admits that he had pushed the band at just short of a J.K.-Simmons-frisbeeing-a-ride-cymbal level of perfectionism. “I drove the band really hard for a while, and I don’t think I realized how hard I was doing that,” he explains. “Everyone was just burnt out on me and on each other. And I think I had wanted to reflect on that more, why I did push so hard and why I could be so demanding and stubborn.” This kind of white-knuckle determination is similar to the folklore of Black Flag taking a firm no-tolerance stance on canceling band practice on Christmas Day, and can be seen in the drastic evolution of Young Jesus from record to record. A lot has changed from the relatively earnest guitar rock of their first singles in 2010 up to this point. The band, as of late, is nearly unrecognizable compared to their early self-released records like Home and Grow / Decompose. They would come to dub themselves a “philosophical jam band,” with their arrangements becoming both grandiose and increasingly loose on the records that followed. Multiple songs would stretch out to gargantuan proportions—like The Whole Thing Is Just There’s epic 20-minute closer “Gulf”—and they would incorporate free-form jams that seemed to witness the band going through every possible conclusion of a song’s idea while the tapes rolled.
If Rossiter pushed the rest of the band to their absolute breaking points in the past, then there is a general sense of calm to the overall tone of Shepherd Head. The first song tips the scale from Rossiter’s new-age philosophical lyrical tendencies to give the band a new-age sonic makeover, with jittering electric keys, washing synths and big, airy drums akin to those on Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” The general absence of guitars is the considerable tectonic shift that Young Jesus achieves this time around. The tranquil and atmospheric flow of the album is a perfect canvas for Rossiter, who tends to bellow more than sing. His rich and emotive voice can sound at times like that of a much more timid Jeff Buckley, and with the album’s open feel, it has space to stretch, rather than snarling, like on some of the band’s more tense moments.
Rossiter also mentions in press notes that Shepherd Head is the most freely collaborative effort from the band. With field recordings and audible dog barks on the title track, it feels like the outside world had input into the whole thing. It’s also the first time the band has enlisted full-fledged guest vocalists and musicians to partake. The album’s first single “Ocean” is a gorgeous duet with Sarah Beth Tomberlin, whose record from this year, i don’t know who needs to hear this…, has a similar downcast, experimental tone. “Believer” is a glitchy collaboration with electronic producer Arswain. Elsewhere, on “Gold Line Awe,” the band uses a shimmering bed of electronics and a four-on-the-floor beat to lay the groundwork for Jamie Renee Williams to read her poem “Stagnation,” which contemplates what existence in purgatory actually looks like.
If there is a central concept to the record, it’s whether our life force and purpose can outlive our physical form. Williams’ sentiment in her poem is echoed back on the following track, “Satsuma,” as Rossiter contemplates this question. He describes the difficulty of living as “an inconsistent friend” and decides he doesn’t want to receive any spoilers on the answers that will be revealed once it’s all over. “Death has met you / What it says / Can you hold it ‘til I join?” he asks earnestly. He later concludes that whatever happens, he knows that love is eternal: “I know your love is a home / I know it’s hallways / You’ll never be here alone / Our love is always.”
Not to turn his back on the band’s namesake, Rossiter does wrestle with the question of what shape an all-powerful entity may take. In “Ocean,” he likens God to an “ocean” where he is lost. In “Believer,” he describes the tragic bargain Judas struck with Jesus to spend eternity in hell to crystalize belief in God’s power. But like in most cases, the messaging got cluttered. He explains that followers took advantage of this exchange between Judas and Jesus to introduce the concept of paying for their salvation: “And out of this well of love for her / Judas gave his life to me / And what a grief we could tell / About this god of one belief / That us believers would sell / The well for poisoning,” the song goes. It’s easy to read lyrics like these and view this record as either deeply religious or skeptical of the traditional construct. But the framework suits Rossiter’s theological and spiritual questions, providing a lyrical tone that is all at once critical of the ways we mourn while being genuine in a search for understanding. Considering both its lyrical concept and its ambient and new age-leaning execution, the eight-song album can evoke the calming soundtrack one might hear just before flatlining.
On final track “A Lake,” the band eschews formula once again, dodging the urge to close the album with a Ben-Hur-sized epic. Instead, the song incorporates minimal piano chords and percussion, with Rossiter’s affected vocals delivering a line that could be read as a summation of all of the concepts delivered on Shepherd Head: “A lake lives through so many of us,” he sings. “We could all ache together.”
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.
Watch Young Jesus’ 2018 Paste Studio session below.