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James Brooks' Sophomore Album Chronicles Love and Despair In the Opioid Age

Love In the Time of Fentanyl would be an apt title for this beautiful, moving collection of desperate lyrical portraits.


March 29, 2019 | by Dan Alvarez

Default Genders

Main Pop Girl 2019


Grade: A-

James Brooks’ stunning second LP as Default Genders plums the depths of modern, Midwestern misery alongside a truly original blend of hyperactive breakbeats, gummy-bear-sweet melodies, and disoriented vocal processing.

Across the disc's 12 songs, the Minneapolis native paints vivid portraits of young people in varying stages of despair and disrepair that are hard to shake off.

Many, many thousands of words have been spilled about the opioid crisis, but I haven’t heard a record that so viscerally captures what it’s like to be engulfed in it during this moment of time. On the suffocating, whispered "reverse chronological order (part 2)," he highlights how quickly addiction strikes by painting a heartbreaking, detailed portrait of a fallen prom-winning couple, dried out and depleted by fentanyl, ennui, and isolation before they hit 25. On "sophie (emphasis mine)," he wistfully imagines a life unburdened by the perils of young adulthood (read: crippling loans, addiction, shit jobs), before recoiling with disgust when a friend muses about the people they used to be. The song is sweet, but also terribly disconcerting, as it’s written from the dreamy, Tumblr-fied perspective of a young person while carrying a foreboding, unshakeable darkness that signals they might already be nearing the end.

And that’s the most devastating part of addiction, right? The way it prematurely ages a person — robbing them of those in-between, learning years — turning them from fresh-faced and hopeful to withdrawn and exhausted almost overnight. Wistful closer, "checking in with the old gang," digs deeper into this territory, as Brooks considers why all those things that used to feel so important now feel utterly useless. "When we were young the future looked so bright. Now that we're closer, we can see that it's on fire," sighs Brooks, delivering the line with the resignation of someone 50 to 60 years his senior, yet with none of the perspective that aging brings.

And though misery is seeping out of just about every word here, the music is a continuous, indispensable source of joy throughout. Whether it’s the hyper-speed, happy house of his unforgettable cover of Bruce Springsteen’s "secret garden .NUXX" or the sitcom-theme swing of "black pill skyline," Brooks’ relentless experimentation and knack for radio-friendly hooks keeps the weight of the lyrics from caving in on everything. Moreover, his clever use of vocal processing masks his limited range as a singer and allows him to bleed into his characters and mirror the disassociation that plagues so many of them.

To be clear, this record isn’t just about drugs; they’re only mentioned by name a handful of times. However, you can feel them permeating just about every element of these characters’ lives, in a way that, sadly, seems to mirror reality for so many. Because to be alive in America is to be affected by opioids. Maybe you experienced their destructive power through a friend, a family member, or a child. Or maybe you have firsthand experience. But there’s no escaping their grasp in 2019. And we need more people like James Brooks who aren’t afraid to stare the problem in the face and bring some humanity to the people who are being swallowed up by them. Because if we don’t learn from their stories, we’ll be doomed to repeat them, and the lives lost will be in vain.

Listen to Main Pop Girl 2019 in its entirety

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