RIP is the synthesis of everything that’s made We Are The City so fascinating over the last decade.
Even though We Are The City has been putting out albums for just over a decade, each record has felt like a distinct era. While maintaining their thoughtful, punch-you-in-the-gut lyrics, the band has toyed with its musical form on each album: High School saw them wearing t-shirts on their head and experimenting with snarkier rock music; Above Club went for full sonic maximalism in a skewed pop format. RIP has been described in press materials as a culmination of everything We Are The City has done before, but it’s safe to say that this won’t be the band’s final form, either. After 2018’s AT NIGHT, which was so airy and experimental that it was hard to absorb, RIP isn’t a “return to form” but a reflection on life’s big moments, past relationships (with other people and with God), and most importantly on the band’s friend, Kyle Tubbs, who died early last year.
Let’s get the title track out of the way first, because there may not be another song like it out there, especially one that comes at the end of an album. What started as a song about mourning a friendship turned into a song about mourning a friend. The instrumentation is sparse as Cayne McKenzie first reflects on his friendship with Tubbs before, voice breaking, he brings up his guilt and sadness over Tubb’s death; it’s grief put to music, and must be incredibly hard to perform live. On Instagram, McKenzie explains he re-recorded his vocals and improvised additional lyrics the day after he learned Tubbs had died.
Along the way to the end, We Are The City walk between seriousness and irony. Songs like “God&Man” are firmly in the former camp. The song is a series of confessions of awful things done in childhood and feels like a conversation with a deity at the gates of heaven. Sure enough, “Saint Peter” follows with a sense of unease and self-doubt in McKenzie’s lyrics, but the line “Surely, baby, there must be a place” suggests the sun may peek through the clouds eventually. “Night Guest” takes on a synth-tinged journey through a neon-lit street in pitch darkness: “We all drive on a dark street/But we don’t travel alone” is a pretty succinct summation of life, isn’t it? Perhaps the pinnacle of the “confessional half” of RIP is “Killer B-Side Music,” a song where noise thunders in the chorus for such a fleeting moment that it will shock you out of whatever you’re doing. There’s also some ample time for reflection in the wordless “You Can’t Blame Me, But You Can Blame Yourself” and in the aptly named “Children’s Hospital Ambience,” an especially quiet and unnerving song.
A switch is flipped in songs like “You’re So Clean.” It’s a jagged rock song that McKenzie sings with a disaffected vocal style, at first sounding like an angsty tribute to a lover before the proverbials lens turns inward. What starts as a series of resolutions (quitting smoking, quitting porn, starting a family) turns into terrifying prognostications of his family dying, delivered in the same voice as his goals. “Song In My Head” would be a shallow song about a fulfilling relationship if it weren’t so darkly funny; it features the word “teen” in almost every line, making it part free-association and part absurdity.
The band has said RIP may be an end point, and that its future music will be a new beginning. RIP reads as a denouement: it feels like McKenzie, Andrew Huculiak and David Menzel have dealt with the climaxes of their lives and are now reckoning with what those moments mean to them as human beings. Clearly, those answers will only come with time, space and putting these moments of doubt and clarity into the world. What about their future? The experimental AT NIGHT was impossible to predict as a follow-up to Above Club’s woozy, crushing atmosphere, so any predictions now will be wildly inaccurate. Whatever their future brings, RIP is worthy testament to what has made We Are The City an intriguing band for more than a decade.