We have to talk about Preoccupations. We have to talk about preoccupations, too, but first we have to talk about Preoccupations.
With uncompromising focus, mildly unsettling moments of tension and angst, and wildly exhilarating catharsis, Preoccupations is the kind of debut album any band would die to release. Most bands, though, wouldn’t have the opportunity to release a second (or even third) first record the way Preoccupations has. To trace the record’s creative arc, you need only look to its first four song titles in sequence: “Anxiety”, “Monotony”, “Zodiac”, and “Memory”.
All that Matt Flegel, Danny Christiansen, Scott Munro and Mike Wallace knew and believed about being in a band together fell away and threatened to break them apart as they worked on what started life as the second Viet Cong album. Doing what any good band would do in similar circumstances, they circled the wagons, blocked out the noise, and found a new sense of normal for themselves. The best course through a shitstorm is to plow straight through it. You have to go through the tediousness and repetition in order to find signs that mark your way out of the past and into the future.
The “sense of urgency and unease” of “Anxiety” is only heightened by the cyclical feeling that “Everybody’s waiting, cautiously optimistic” for “Monotony” to break the tension. It’s not until the band pummel their way through “Zodiac,” “Thrashing so weakly, so close to exhaustion, While hopelessly holding our breath,” that there’s even a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. Those familiar with the Women/Viet Cong/Preoccupations story know that Flegel and Wallace have been down this road once before. Like a lesson learned from the past, “Memory” tells them “You don’t have to say sorry for all the things you failed to do, You don’t have to say sorry for all the times when everything fell through”; you just have to take your licks, own your shit, and decide how to move forward.
Maybe it’s reading more into Preoccupations than the band wants us to. Maybe not. The fact of the matter is you can only separate artist from art in the case of Preoccupations if you’ve no idea who Preoccupations are or who they were. Even then, the allegory of this album’s first half will be evident to anyone who listens all the way through. With that soon-to-be-iconic opening line, Matt Flegel (singing with more unease than urgency), Danny Christiansen, Scott Munro and Mike Wallace take listeners on an intense journey, one that truly starts with the siren-like whistle that kicks off “Degraded”, an alarm waking Preoccupations up to a new reality.
From there, they move through the last half of the record in creative leaps and bounds, with a brilliant new clarity and vision. “Sense” burns briefly, but hauntingly so. “Sense”, together with the schizophrenia of the equally short “Forbidden”, mirrors “Memory”’s multi-movement structure from the first side. But it’s “Stimulation”an epic, post-punk/prog-rock mindfuck that does what minutes earlier seemed all but impossible: stealing the title of ‘best moment’ on Preoccupations from the Dan Boeckner-sung, middle third, new wave movement of “Memory”.
We have to talk about Preoccupations the art because it’s uncompromising, emotionally unrelenting, and expertly rendered. We have to talk about Preoccupations the artists, who set about disassembling themselves, deconstructing their method, discarding ideas and concepts that were no longer relevant, in turn re-discovering themselves. We have to talk about our preoccupations as music listeners, as consumers of art. We have to go to where discomfort lives within us. Like Preoccupations the artists have done with Preoccupations the art, we have to sit with our preoccupations, know them, and then decide what we’re going to do with them. We have to do all of this all at the same time it seems, but first, we just have to start talking.