Jeff Rosenstock's 'HELLMODE' Is a Soundtrack to Modern Living

BY Adam FeibelPublished Aug 29, 2023

HELLLLMOOOODE! If you're a Jeff Rosenstock fan, you probably saw the title of his fifth studio album and nodded knowingly. HELLMODE… of course. That's where we're at. It's modern life, the present day, our unprecedented times. We're living in hell, baby. Whether it makes you want to laugh, cry or rip a bong, Rosenstock's got you covered. 

HELLMODE captures, as he puts it, "the chaos of being alive right now," at a time when everyone is "feeling way too much all at once." It's a common thread in music of the last several years, especially since the Trump presidency, since COVID-19, since the resurgence of the far right, since the tipping point in the public consciousness where it became harder than ever not to think about the things that can and will kill you. In the past year and a half, albums by other punk acts like PUP, Spanish Love Songs and Chris Farren have tapped into that doomsday mentality. So has Rosenstock, whose 2020 album No Dream was packed with dispatches from an America swept up in late-stage capitalism and a gleefully cruel form of politics.

Here, Rosenstock doesn't spend too much time pointing out all the problems he sees in the world, probably because he and the listener already understand each other. Instead, he's focused on describing how it feels to be surrounded by it all. "I wake up every day and something bad is goin' on," he sings on "I WANNA BE WRONG." Generally, the songs on HELLMODE take it for granted that you already know what he's talking about. But Rosenstock makes it clear that he obviously doesn't enjoy wallowing in a world full of hateful people, fascist leaders, violent cops, corporate despots and "scumfuck white supremacist shitlords," as he puts it on "SOFT LIVING." He'd love to wake up in utopia and write about something else.

The thing is, Rosenstock doesn't want you to be just like him. He rattles off pessimistic epigrams about life being shitty, but between the seams are tender expressions of love and empathy. In "DOUBT," he urges us repeatedly to "chill out," right after describing "the dog shit that's stuck on the heart of the fuckin' world" and "the doom that's been screwed to the roof of your fuckin' skull." He gets as close as he can to a sappy love song on "HEALMODE," singing about perfect days "where all you need is me, and all I need is you." 

These songs aren't meant to bring you down; they're meant to give you something to rally around. Rosenstock wants you to be happy. He wants to be happy, too! If this was a self-help book, it would maybe be the worst self-help book ever (actually, no it wouldn't). But as an album of fun, catchy punk anthems, it hits all the right notes. 

All of this is conveyed via the fuzzy, dirty, grungy, hard-edged, garage-style pop-punk that has become Rosenstock's trademark. He continues his association with Jack Shirley, but this time making a concerted effort to sound more like major-label punk records like Dookie, Enema of the State and All Killer No Filler, but that doesn't really happen — probably to his benefit. A lot of the charm of Rosenstock's music stems from it sounding authentically underground and delightfully imperfect, and that's too much a part of his character to be able to pave over with a shiny Hollywood production.

And while Rosenstock has mostly left the sound of his ska-punk days with Bomb the Music Industry! and the Arrogant Sons of Bitches out of his solo career — saving it for his ska re-recording of No Dream and several guest appearances for other bands — it still manifests in his quick-paced, fun-loving approach and uncaring attitude about what the cool kids say is cool. As a result, he's managed to be critically acclaimed by the type of music publications that turned up their noses during pop-punk's heyday.

Throughout his career, Rosenstock has earned a reputation as a beer-chugging, bong-ripping party animal, a carefree, loveable goofball and, paradoxically, one of the hardest-working punks on the planet. On top of releasing five albums (plus a remix record) in eight years, he's released music with Laura Stevenson, Chris Farren (as Antarctigo Vespucci) and the Bruce Lee Band, among others. He's also scored multiple seasons of the Emmy-nominated animated series Craig of the Creek, a gig consistent with his cartoonish sense of humour. (He's moved his home base from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, but he publicly lists his location as "Hell's Ass.") 

In spite of, or maybe because of, this tireless work ethic, HELLMODE marks the first time in years that Rosenstock, a guy who loves punk rock and hates money, has bothered to give a new album a real promotional cycle instead of just tweeting out the album without prior notice on New Year's Day or a random Wednesday. By giving fans this lead time, he's finally letting them form expectations for a new record. Whatever those are, HELLMODE more than likely delivers. The album is quintessential Rosenstock. Honestly though, so was No Dream, so was Post-, so was Worry, and so was We Cool? He's apparently incapable of making a bad record — even your least favourite Rosenstock album is, at the very least, good. 

That Jeff Rosenstock has a devoted following is no surprise — the music is deserving. What really matters, though, is how much he speaks to young people in the 21st century. Sometimes, there's a man… well, he's the man for his time and place. And that's the dude, Jeff Rosenstock, in Los Angeles. He's an everyman with a voice, a preacher who doesn't want the job. Mostly, though, he feels like a friend. Who else would you want to have with you while you're living in hell?

Latest Coverage