All of the fascinating ideas and themes that make Rooms of the House such a noteworthy album are presented to you before it even starts. It’s all there in the cover: a wall, covered with pictures that have no personal connection to the listener. Still, you search for one. You fill in the gaps with your own memories and emotions. That log cabin up at the top? It has no connection to your childhood, but it can still take you back there. You insert yourself right into this house’s story just as the photographer taking the album’s cover inserts himself, clumsily, right into the middle of the sprawl.
Fittingly, the 11 songs all feel like their own separate rooms. They contain different emotions, thoughts, memories, ideas. Still, you can see the other rooms through the doorway. Take opener “HUDSONVILLE MI 1956,” which documents a family split apart by hundreds of miles during a freak storm. It’s not lead vocalist Jordan Dreyer’s story, even if his deadpan talk singing and blunt-force yelling (a couple of the band’s major strengths) lend the song all the gravity you would expect from a personal tale of tragedy. Dreyer could never know the details he lists off, all the burnt batches of coffee and blown-in windows. But he can assume these things, fold them into memory. And he can give these same memories to us.
And then, we can watch these memories pop up again as we walk through the house, as they shift and distort and get incorporated into other memories. The storm gets muddled in with the half-embarrassments of childhood friends’ parents on “FOR MAYOR IN SPLITSVILLE,” and with a senseless bridge collapse on the harrowing “35”. Those memories then get rolled back into that storm from ’56, where, even if there are still “bridges over rivers” there are most definitely “moments of collapse”.
What emerges then is a fully formed history, made up of fragments of truth and extrapolations and half-thoughts. And this history continues to form, reflecting the breakup that serves as the album’s true emotional core. On heartbreaking closer “OBJECTS IN SPACE,” the narrator gathers up all the objects in his house and examines every little tchotchke’s relation to his life and his failed relationship. There are “found notes, camping supplies, a book you bought in the desert.” He reflects on how other people’s memorials, which are meant to evoke specific memories of people we may not even know, can still give us a crystal clear picture in our head. And so he hides the objects, reveling in the personal nature of memories that only he can understand. The fact that we’re privy to this process makes it clear why such a process might be necessary.
There are so many of these details and insights on the album that it can feel overwhelming. It’s like trying to squeeze a house’s entire history into just a couple chapters. There’s the innocent naivety running through the tale of a stillborn child on “THE CHILD WE LOST 1963,” the romantic reminiscences and creative frustration of “Woman (reading),” and the contemplative nostalgia and aching imagery of “Extraordinary Dinner Party.” All these topics, disparate though they may seem, fit perfectly into the narrative threads and themes spiraling through the album. They’re not chronologically ordered, but the way they spill out makes perfect sense. The album, and the story it tells, feels complete and whole even if there’s little doubt the band could have much, much more to say.
At some point, ‘emo’ fell off. I usually don’t make incredibly general claims like this one I just made, but I think in this case, it is a warranted statement. This statement reflects my much mulled over opinion that ‘emo’ music has, since its first renaissance, become devoured by commodification, which early ‘emotional hardcore’ artists railed against. Now, I know that sounds like a rockist complaint and a pathetic display of nostalgia for origins, but what really makes contemporary ‘emo’—as it has been stigmatized since—so irrevocably bad is that it is so often packaged with our own recycled pop culture metaphors and resold as a safe blend of tongue-in-cheek melodrama and ironic machismo. Emo(tional hardcore), which when done well can be a supremely visceral musical style, has since become an emotionally vague parody of itself.
Thankfully, however, the 2010s has seen a revival in strident post-hardcore artists that challenge this stereotype of ‘emocore’ as emotionally bankrupt. This new wave of post-hardcore artists—facetiously called “The Wave” by its core members—is notable for how these artists blend raw aesthetics of early post-hardcore with a plethora of diverse influences such as post-rock, post-punk, shoegaze, metal, jazz, and spoken word.
Grand Rapids, Michigan-based post-hardcore band La Dispute is one of these ‘new wave’ artists that pulls from a wide variety of sonic influences, yet La Dispute stakes a claim of originality through its unique blend of these influences and an idiosyncratic method of storytelling. La Dispute’s sophomore record, Wildlife, is a remarkable attempt at musical variation, yet it meanders at moments, which curbs its appeal as a thematically tight piece on tragedy and change. With La Dispute’s stripped back third full-length record, Rooms of the House, however, La Dispute may just be that band that restores my faith in post-hardcore’s ethos within such a diverse musical environment.
Rooms of the House immediately channels a myriad of familiar styles both musical as well as literary, yet retains a strong voice. Excellent opener “HUDSONVILLE MI 1956” with its rumbly, metallic, dissonant guitar intro overlaid with lead vocalist Jordan Dreyer’s restless poetics swiftly crescendos into a storm of reverb and throaty screams, an intense musical movement reminiscent of early post-hardcore’s dynamism. This storm—both a sonic metaphor as well as a lyrical image in this song—intensifies and calms several times throughout with no chorus as a lightning rod. Subsequent song “First Reactions After Falling Through The Ice” is a slightly more straightforward song which conjures memories of teenage days spent holed up in my room with AP English papers on my agenda and Cursive’s icy demo The Difference Between Houses and Homes in my boombox, yet La Dispute’s sense of rhythm is more physical here than on any record I remember from emo’s glory days. Standout track, “For Mayor in Splitsville,” is a strong melodic post-hardcore song with an actual chorus, but a Slint-reminiscent interlude of drum clicks, guitar glissandos, and a spoken word piece artfully breaks up what could have been another ‘emo’ song about childhood memories.
What completely derails all prejudgments of Rooms of the House as potentially vapid or conversely overwrought, however, is Dreyer’s terse poetic lyrics and strained yet patient vocal delivery. Dreyer’s trembling timbre alone would be cathartic enough, but it is his use of imagery and motif along with his staggered, often syncopated shouts that makes these songs so consistently enthralling. It is not only Dreyer’s performance, however, that makes Rooms of the House such a spectacle of modern poetry: guitarists Kevin Whittemore and Chad Sterenberg, bassist Adam Vass, and dummer Brad Vander Lugt all follow a poetic pattern in line with Dreyer’s vocals. These songs themselves are poems. And indeed poetry itself may be a prominent theme of Rooms of the House as its characters negotiate past relationships through damaged and distorted memories replaced by visual metaphors and refrains that remind us that “we had no idea what we were doing.” This collection of sonic poems isn’t simply a poetry slam captured on record, it’s a photo album compiled in a certain way that reflects how our views on life have changed since we smiled and said, “Cheese!” In a way, it is, like this review, an attempt at a mature reflection on former selves and former forms of expressions.
Rooms of the House demonstrates that post-hardcore can indeed still inspire powerful sentiments, and I hope that La Dispute even further challenges expectations and even further explores deep themes on subsequent records, for it is La Dispute’s focused sifting and intense musing that makes Rooms of the House such an absorbing record.
Rooms of the House is out now on Better Living Records.