The last line on the last Beauty Pill album was “Terrible things are gonna happen. This record’s over, so why not go outside and stop them?” You could have heard that song 11 years ago, a cracked Dischord disc case on your passenger seat, a war blood-blossoming across a different part of the word, the song the angriest and most commanding on the album, and you might’ve thought yeah, it’s time to do something.
I’m gonna half-quote myself from waaaay back in 2007 saying the group wasn’t a collective, but a band with porous boundaries, and then I’m gonna say that the democratic spirit of the band’s only full length and first two EPs did not mean there wasn’t ideology being pamphleteered through these songs. Sure, singer/principal songwriter Chad Clark has always been a storyteller (the tragedy of “Prison Song,” or even the vignettes of “Terrible Things” for two examples), but there were messages and goals in his past songs.
I’m going to link to myself from 2012, the year I thought Beauty Pill were going to release the album they released this year, to explain the backstory behind it. It’s worth reading.
And now here’s what changed on the album the Beauty Pill released a few weeks back: The Beauty Pill Describe Things As They Are. That’s it. It’s simple and also non-cartesian complicated. This isn’t an album of commands. At the end, you’re not being told to stop terrible things, but the terrible things are still happening. Why the change? Opening track “Drapetomania” (named after the “disease” that caused slaves to flea from plantation)—whose pace doesn’t suggest an 11 year jumpstart, instead suggests a track that’s been playing for 11 years and is mighty agitated of doing so—offers this about halfway through- “The neighbor’s wifi is called ‘magic negro’ now/I’m gonna burn his house down/if I may.” It’s that last bit, the asking for permission, where the album sucks its teeth after almost hitting a wall. This is the album that says you wanna do something about this? You’ll lose a lot trying to change. You’ll be hated and threatened trying to change. You might die trying. Describe Things As They Are is the album that talks about how change happens and, often, is pissed at the answer it provides.
This in an album enmeshed within power structures. This isn’t a punk record about beating up that racist skinhead at the show because those albums already exist. This is an album about not getting the job because your name sounds black, about getting shot or shoved into summer asphalt because of your high melanin level, of taking a job nobody with whiter skin wants and then getting accused of “stealing ‘our’ jobs.” This is album realizes a radical way of peeling back skin is to not.
“Afrikaner Barista” shows this well. Over a song that’s about 50 percent beat and ten percent horns and the rest Chad Clark’s voice, there’s the story of its title- a white South African working at a coffee shop. The song’s narrator recognizes the woman behind the counter as an Afrikaner, and, despite “bloody, subjugation/the history between us,” a major portion of the song’s refrain is “I want to be the one you like.” Talk about a fucked up legacy! This is a song hard-clipping servility, collective guilt, the idea of passing (our narrator notes “some mistake you for Australian/and you correct the one you like”), and emotional toll of reconciliation. It’s an intensely political song, but it is a call for thought, deep thought, not action. It’s the same as the snide bearing of social construction, “For Pretend,” which talks about roles we take on/ that are put upon us (and the baggage that comes with such roles) in the guise of an adult explaining the divide between movies and real life to a child who doesn’t understand the distinction.
The idea of film, of cameras, comes up a lot over the course of Describe Things As They Are. “Dog With Rabbit in Mouth Unharmed,” a personal song about the death of a pet, begins “Open with an aerial shot of a Maxfield Parish dusk, camera spinning.” The audience is an audience at least twice over. And the music does this as well as the lyrics- everything here feel manipulated- there are electronics, studio noise, miscellaneous drumbeats, samples. It’s the sound of a music layered on top of music—one more filter, one more frame. And if you didn’t click on the second link to find out how this album was recorded, that’s another level of subjectivity right there- the band recorded the bulk of it in an art gallery, windows open to the street, doors open to outside contributions.
And that’s one of the best things about this extraordinary album- the way that, in order to describe things as they are, the band has to specifically draw back, not attempt objectivity. Putting such a lens on real life can, when done poorly or clumsily, can result in some pretty racist bullshit.
I don’t at all mean to imply that the Beauty Pill succeed in describing structural violence because the band’s subjectivities evolve from their multiracial background (though given how overwhelming white, male, and American most indie rock and punk music continues to be, that certainly doesn’t hurt things). Instead, I think the presentation of these subjectivities through frames like the fast paced action of “Steven and Tiwonge” (the song follows a gay couple in Malawi fleeing state violence), shows an urgency and skill that bypasses questions of authenticity. It doesn’t matter whether Chad Clark or anyone in the band had an encounter with a white, South African barista, or whether anyone in the band has spent time enmeshed within our legal system to inspire “Aint A Jury In The World Gon Convict You Baby.” The entirety of Describe Things as They Are succeeds because it entirely fulfills the promise of its lofty title.