When Viet Cong announced the retirement of their supposedly offensive title, there was an understanding of social pressure outweighing artistic vision. With the coinciding timing of Andrew Jackson Jihad revamping their image as the eye-rolling AJJ, music seemed to be taken into consideration second to appeasing the outspoken minority groups who took offense to anything that could be taken offense to, regardless of actual targeting and oppression. In either scenario, it was a very un-punk move, eschewing any sense of what punk once stood for. In this sense, the tag of post-punk feels especially resonant, offering a surrounding meaning of what the music has become and the creation behind it. Putting misguided social adjustments aside, in becoming “Preoccupations” and killing the relation to “Viet Cong”, the music needed to be different enough to warrant an image renovation. Ditching the past meant creating the future, offering something that couldn’t have been offered under the previous pseudonym. Most importantly, however, their sound needed to be better.
But in almost every sense, Preoccupations is worse than Viet Cong. Their filler sound is much of the same, albeit with some slight tweaks in delivery. Matt Flegel’s vocals are higher in the mix, clearer in delivery. But in making the vocals more coherent, stripping away that occasional wall of sound that Viet Cong could slip into, the lyrics become much more prominent. And with lines about monotony killing everyone and people hunkering to escape from suicide machines, prominence is a mistake. Post-punk, at least at the hands of Viet Cong, worked well in offering droning vocals that intertwined within the equally droning guitar moans and synthesizer screams. Now, the post-punk is slightly more reminiscent of Ought’s interpretation of the movement, and it becomes painfully clear how much less personality Flegel has than Ought’s Tim Darcy.
Instrumentally, there’s a noticeable change in exploration when comparing Preoccupations’ debut exclusively with Viet Cong’s. There are still elements of experimentation, oftentimes changing styles within one song, but there are significantly more elements of pop seeping in. And when pop seeps in, it can be difficult to capture that menacing, dark tonality that the band has historically thrived in. If Viet Cong had its toes dipped in noise rock, Preoccupations has its dipped in gothic pop. And honestly, the band excels immensely within the confines of gothic pop. At the four-minute mark of “Memory”, a glow of synths and bass fills out and eclipses the album’s epicenter in a way that’d give Robert Smith pride. And yet, despite this newfound and apparently immediate perfecting of a new sound, the band falls back into more of the same material, giving little credence to the identity shift and forcing the question, “Why show glimmers of the new when you immediately retreat back to the old?”
It’s difficult to listen to songs like “Anxiety” or “Stimulation” and not think they sound like forgotten Viet Cong tracks, bathed in that rigidly technical lifelessness that trudges along so naturally. It’s also difficult to assume every track is as fleshed out as possible, that every song was scrutinized in the same way those seven strategically placed ones on Viet Cong were. What we’re given instead is a collection of too many tracks that either finishes unfinished or, worse and perhaps unintentionally ironically, falls into a daze of monotony and indiscernibility. “Forbidden” dies out as soon as it climaxes, a flickered spark of what might have been, tantalizing though it is. “Zodiac” and “Fever” fall into the latter category, their inclusion completely unnecessary, a pair of tracks whose sole intention seems to be to lengthen Preoccupations’ runtime.
In the whole of Preoccupations’ near-forty minute run, the band hones in on the sound they know well, delivered in uninspiring nuggets of post-punk, all the while sprinkling in tones and displays of sounds they know to be risky. And it’s these risky moments that give life to an otherwise (though intentionally so) cold and emotionless album. When Preoccupations put on their best Cure mask, it feels genuine, a true homage to the music found in the band mate’s record collections. But when they don Joy Division-esque qualities, it feels like more of the same, a pointless regurgitation of what we already know. And what we know to be true is that with all iterations of the band, from Women to Viet Cong to now Preoccupations, their output diminishes in quality, worsening every time a new cloak of reinvention and rebirth is draped over. With Preoccupations, the change is a decision in lieu of artistic innovation, a result of directional stagnation. Unfortunately, the new identity can’t mask the transparency in rehashed material.
– Zach W.