There is a handful of bands that I actively look forward to new music from, but only a small subset of this will get the pre-order treatment. These have earned my confidence that, whatever direction they decide to go in, I’ve a guarantee that it will arrive in a good place.
Since 1993, in their shoegaze period, the band Starflyer 59 have been just such a known commodity. That’s not to say they’ve stayed in that place for 26 years. They have moved through different stages including a more traditional rock sound (1998’s The Fashion Focus), a flirtation with classic rock, mixed in mono, no less (2001’s Leave Here A Stranger), a dive into T. Rex-like classic glam (Old from 2013), and a more keyboard-driven effort in 2008’s Dial M. The sound of the latter years is closest to power-pop, only with a more dour, reflective bent than average.
Band members have fallen in and out. Lead singer/songwriter Jason Martin persists, and throughout, has brought a laconic, moody demeanor to even the most slamming rock track. With him comes a steady narrative of growing up, and now, growing older.
This phase, beginning with IAMACEO from 2013 and following through on 2016’s Slow, seems like it has run its course on the band’s latest, Young In My Head. The ten track effort finds Martin singing about how he would like to hang up the rocker boots and be able to play only when prompted by friends, or when he’s jamming with his son. He opines about his own physical changes as he ages, but his brain still recalls his twenties like it was yesterday. Where did the time go, aren’t I supposed to feel like my age, and why don’t I (until I overexert and hit that wall)?
In this, Starflyer 59 is doing something rather unique: actually engaging with the subject matter of aging. Rock music, itself seen as a signifier of generations of advanced years, still has a problem with reckoning with Father Time. You can name endless individuals who still strut out with their butt out…some carry it off well, but most elicit a blush of embarrassment from the audience.
Martin’s songs have always been little marvels of efficiency, seldom breaking the four-minute mark, almost always holding hooks that latch onto the listener for days. Young In My Head is no different, and succeeds because even though the subject matter as described hardly seems like rock-worthy material, it’s carried off so well that by the time you receive the full impact of the song, it’s almost over. There’s little fat hanging off of a SF59 tune.
Martin is taking on the idea with both hands, as heard in songs like the title track and the closing “Crash,” evoking a hard rock feel not out of line with AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” and Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” On the song, Martin ruminates on the demise of relationships, how people grow up and fall out, and considers that this is just how living long enough works. You can’t hold onto everyone forever or, rather, “Everyone can crash.”
The rest of the album doesn’t go quite as hard, but still keeps it’s eye on that central theme. “Remind Me” has a woozy synth line which recalls vaguely those from electronic groups Board of Canada or SURVIVE which offers the music for the TV series Stranger Things. These ’80s-adjacent sounds, mangled enough to not be loyalist, provide an unease, a tension that informs the listener of where Martin is from, and that his relationship to that past is itself under scrutiny.
Young In My Head is a solid entry, but I cannot say it tops the previous IAMACEO and Slow. Those two albums felt shorter than this (Slow is legitimately short at only eight tracks). Still, it’s much about criticizing a record for not clearing admittedly high bars, and I speculate whether other bands will get nearly as close as SF59 get with this for the remainder of 2019.
If his lingering musical threats are true and this does wind up being Jason Martin’s last Starflyer record, he’ll do so with head held high. Young In My Head does not break the reliability factor, but instead uses its consistency to carry forward ideas unique to the genre. That’s something worth congratulating.