Proper’s ‘The Great American Novel’ Is An Essential Punk Rock Document
By Nathan Leigh
March 25, 2022
“if there’s anything this year has taught me
my life is worth less than a haircut and a coffee
only protest if you’re white and miss conveniency
but don’t you dare sit this out or take a knee”
Because its commercial breakthrough coincided with the rise of a certain strain of pop punk, “emo” has long been associated with the myopia of the breakup song. But the roots of the movement were nakedly political. Inspired in equal part by Bad Brains and Public Enemy, the first wave of emo was all about reflecting on the human and emotional impact of society’s brokenness. Credit to Brooklyn’s Proper. for taking back the narrative and reminding us that this shit is supposed to mean something.
Bandleader Erik Garlington says their latest The Great American Novel is “a concept album about how Black genius goes ignored, is relentlessly contested, or just gets completely snuffed out before it can flourish. Imagine a queer, Black Holden Caulfield-type coming up in the 2010s.” It plays often like a breakup album with America, kicking off with the bookend track “You Good” Garlington displays a unique talent for devastating quips with lines like “turtles all the way down / pigs at the top.” Lead single “Red, White, & Blue” reframes the protagonist’s relationship with the US as an abusive one with lines like “all I do is cover for you / so you can beat me til I’m red white blue.” It’s a record whose best songs interrogate the way American culture in general and the music industry specifically is structured to chew up people with marginalized identities in pursuit of profit. Where every victory is a Pyrrhic one, and exploitation is technically consensual, at least, that’s what the contract assures us.
Garlington and bandmates Natasha Johnson (bass) and Elijah Watson (drums) craft intricate arrangements that shift between anthemic hooks, bone-shattering aggression, and heartbreakingly contemplative minimalism. Where far too many bands in punk settle on a “sound” and let every track be a loose variation of that sound, there’s a complexity at work that defiantly refuses to be pigeonholed into any one subgenre. That musical dexterity allows the band to give their rock opera some real dynamics and momentum. The full throttle impact of latest single “Jean’s” height yield to a twinkly guitar riff that allows the closing audio clip that contextualizes it to hit like a gut punch. To some degree, with the framing of the opener and closer, The Great American Novel plays like a late night drunken conversation where you start to unload and then can’t stop until you’ve fully unburdened.
The presence of producer Bartees Strange helps enrich the details that have always been at the heart of Proper.’s sound but never gets fussy or in the way. This is a record built to be performed. Fitting given how much the songs reference the struggles of trying to exist within a music scene that would prefer you just kinda didn’t. That idea comes through sharpest on the narrative centerpiece “In The Van Somewhere Outside of Birmingham” which paints the eternal conflict of the touring act: touring is a constant contradiction of misery and glory, triumph and defeat. When Garlington sings about “you” on “Milk & Honey” is he singing about the man of the week, his career, the music industry, or America? The answer shifts line to line. All a series of bad situations he can’t find a way not to need. The code “what if what if I can’t do this?” is a thesis of the album, the existential question that just asking tells everything. Breaking briefly into triumphant horns before evaporating, it defies an easy answer in the same way as the lyrics.
With The Great American Novel, Proper. have created an album that actually lives up to its tongue-in-cheek self-aggrandizing title. Lots of bands in DIY have riffed endlessly on their literary aspirations (looking at you Tim Kasher and Blake Schwartzenbach), but Proper. have matched their aspirations with scale. The depth, pathos and musicality on display runs circles around Kerouac. This is a true document of the times.
Proper. will be on tour this spring. Follow them @likerealproper for more.
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