Daniel Romano has a complicated relationship with love. Don’t we all, though? Love is complex, crazy, and contentious. It stems from our most base instincts, spurring us on to the grandest, drippiest of gestures or the ugliest, darkest decisions of our lives. Who among us has not been made a fool in the name of love?
On Modern Pressure, his seventh album in as many years, Romano bravely wonders aloud what’s to become of love in the darkening atmosphere of our present times. Bravely because, increasingly, pessimism, ignorance, and hatred are winning out on every social media battleground and in every political arena. Romano confronts this modern malaise armed with a nostalgic, starry-eyed mysticism. He takes up the mantle of the socially-conscious troubadour, a role previously embodied by artists like Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan.
By the end of the album’s second song (it’s anthemic title track and poetic mission statement), you get the sense that Modern Pressure isn’t only an exercise in art-making like some of his previous releases. There is a purpose behind this album that’s as much personal as it is political. It’s what makes Modern Pressure Daniel Romano’s most fascinating and frustrating record to date. His musical mood swings across the first three tracks also makes it his least accessible album, but forging through the classic country stomp of “Ugly Human Heart Pt. 1” and on past the protest folk of the title track and reverent balladry of “Roya”, rewards the listener a thousandfold.
The inventiveness and visionary nature of the record’s sequencing won’t be as apparent to digital listeners as it will vinyl consumers until they get to track seven, “Ugly Human Heart Pt. 2”, and realize that the record’s two sides are spiritual siblings of one another. Song eight, “Impossible Green”, shares the Dylanesque poetry of song two, “Modern Pressure”. The melodic motifs of “Roya”–which Romano says represents “the femininity in nature and the universal She”–reappears on “Jennifer Castle”, a song dedicated to another strong female spirit in his circle of musical friends, which falls in the same sequential slot on Side B. “The Pride of Queens” and its counterpart “Dancing With the Lady in the Moon” both play fast and loose with tempo and tone. “When I Learned Your Name” and “I Tried To Hold The World (In My Mouth)” are a pair of musical pastiches (the former of which works better than the latter). Closers “Sucking The Old World Dry” and “ What’s To Become Of The Meaning Of Love” both shudder with an activist’s fervor. Romano saves the album’s two best and most impassioned tracks to deliver Modern Pressure’s thematic punch: the pressure’s never going to let up. Just as the album’s two halves bring a harmony to Romano’s vision, we need to cultivate love in order to balance out the daily barrage of negativity and pessimism all around us.
Romano calls his sound “Mosey” music (naming his last album after it), and Modern Pressure further refines and defines what that sound is: a manipulation of genre and form; intricate layers and wild arrangements; the kinetic energy of inspiration and creativity. The history of popular music is malleable in Romano’s hands, and he crafts songs that are both familiar and challenging. Modern Pressure isn’t meant to be loved at first listen, but once you familiarize yourself with its stylistic shifts, it’s the kind of record that gives you a butterflies-in-the-gut feeling with every repeated listen.
If that’s not a sure sign of being in love, then I don’t know what is.