Irony has been dying or dead a good 20 years, but it’s only recently that earnestness seems to have become cool. As alcohol and drug use crater among the young (heck, kids are barely having sex anymore) it can be odd for children of Generation X to watch creatives compete on wholesomeness.
From Billie Eilish’s bedroom compositions to the HAIM sisters’ multi-instrumentalism to the cottagecore of pandemic Taylor Swift, there is suddenly a cult of thoughtful competence.
While Gen X cultivated a tough outer shell, the uncaring detachment of “Nevermind” drawn from a fend-for-yourself childhood, the generations that have come after have grown increasingly inward-looking and transparent. They’re all up in their feelings.
“One of the things that happen to me,” said Mosart 212, a veteran DJ and producer in Portland, “is that I can get very anxious around people who are very vulnerable. Because I worry they’re going to get hurt.”
And so he was drawn almost in fascination to Myles Bullen – rapper, poet, performance artist – who has made vulnerability his stock in trade in a young career that has become increasingly active, with a string of releases and features since 2015. Affable, quiet, thoughtful, openly in recovery, Bullen’s full-length last year was literally called “Healing Hurts.”
“I think seeing Myles put me in that place, where he’s so out there, with really just no pretense,” Mo said. “No joking. This isn’t ironic. It isn’t about having the keys to the universe and you don’t. It’s not a lesson.”
So, when Bullen called him up and asked for a beat, Mo sent him something. Nine years after his solo debut “PASSIVE/AGGRESSIVE,” it was only the second time he’d made a piece for a vocalist.
Bullen is a lot less selective: “Someone the other day called me musically polyamorous. I get with everybody.”
As is often the case, though, the opposites have attracted into one of the year’s most interesting releases so far, the 15-minute, six-track “Looking for a Body.” Sometimes like gazing at nakedness, sometimes a treatise on truth and perception, it is something to sit with.
“I like Mo’s beats because they make me try harder,” Bullen said. “I felt very centered and it pushed my boundaries, made me write differently. That’s someone I want to work with, someone who challenges me and pushes me to do something I’m not already doing.”
While it’s true, as Mo said, that Bullen “can actually fucking rap,” on this work he acts more like the executive producer, selecting samples, making decisions, prodding Mo to move things around.
The opening “Sing/” is a looped female vocalist singing the word “sing,” with a swallowed syllable, which Mo devolves and breaks apart, like flipping a rock over to see the things skitter on the other side. “Missing/Airplane” is built around an old-time “Twilight Zone” monologue, where a male speaker discourses on the manufactured reality of an airplane people only think they see before them.
“One of us sees the seats as blue, another of us sees the seats as brown,” and the two-note bounce of the production wobbles just for a second, like a break of the fourth wall.
Bullen even pulls in a collaborator – Ruby Yacht crew member SB the Moor – for a Chicago-style jazzy piece where “you’ll die a thousand times before you live” and “nostalgia always seems to blind me.”
But the album’s highlights come where Bullen and Mo seem to lock into an equilibrium, as on “Sky/Clap,” where Mo’s dense bed of strings, snares, hiccups, and pullbacks allows Bullen to let loose with a stream of consciousness that is tightly woven and almost impossibly intimate until it builds to a shouted realization: “We are nothing but our choices.”
And both of them know that rapping about “self-care” is right on the edge.
“There are instances where earnestness can be off-putting,” Mo said, referencing the likes of the NBC show “This Is Us.” “Because it feels manipulative, which I see as really unfair. You appear to be open and vulnerable and available, and then it turns you’re not.”
Bullen is. Which ain’t easy.
“Call me what you will,” Bullen offers on the closing “Forwarded Message.” “If I had another name, I would tell you. I swear. Cuz I care.”
The whole thing only works if you believe him. And to believe him, you sort of have to care if he cares, a position it can be surprisingly hard to admit.
“It’s dope,” Mo said. “It’s genuine. It’s interesting. … It’s not that he’s super young, it’s that he’s eternally young.” Or, maybe, we never should have equated that loss of earnestness, of caring, with getting old in the first place.
But don’t worry, Bullen and Mosart 212 said they’re not done looking for bodies. Just wait to see what else they turn up.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Rustic Overtones, “The Lucky Ones” — This seven-song release to commemorate the birthday of Dave Noyes, who died in his sleep two years ago, features Noyes’ arrangements of songs largely from 2009’s “New Way Out,” plus “Victory,” from 2012’s “Let’s Start a Cult.” We get a feel for Noyes’ love of lush string arrangements, languid horns, and drawn-out Dave Gutter vocals with a dose of reverb. Listen closely for the studio banter. It’s the best part.
• Genevieve Stokes, “Parking Lot” — The second single off her “Swimming Lessons” EP, she plays the organ and sings with power and grace to fit the setting of this video. “Did you feel the same way about me?” she asks. “Did you feel the same way without me?”
• Shane Reis, “Greener Grass” — A collaboration with ProducedbyGeorge, who recently worked with Myles Bullen, this features Reis at his most relaxed, with a lot of humility and self-reflection over a ’70s R&B vibe: “I got a lot of feelings and I don’t know what to call ‘em.”
• Quad, “Agrodulce” — All-instrumental, this cello-drums duo manages to pull off a menacing piece of almost-metal that sometimes grows into something like Seals and Crofts, with the cello layered and competitive with itself and the drums augmented with various production. Not overly dissimilar to what Odd Couple was doing a couple of years back.
• Jacob Green, “No End in Sight” — Green and a passel of friends put together this 13-song full-length LP over the course of the pandemic in various locations, as befits Green’s history of one-man-band traveling around the northeast. A mix of acoustic rock, folk, and straightforward blues, it sounds like campfires and train tracks.
— Sam Pfeifle