When you’re 15 years old, the idea that “music can change your life” is fresh and attainable. It’s a virtue that many of us hold onto later in life, but rarely does it feel more exciting than in youth. It can also be a tumultuous time, when the drama of relationships and the imposing world feel like they can crush down on the poor trapper-keeper hearts. On American Wrestlers’ latest album, Goodbye Terrible Youth, songwriter Gary McClure made a record designed for this younger version of himself.
Knowing this is key to unlocking the beauty behind the record. On its own, it’s a fine collection of hooky rock songs with punchy choruses and bright production. But when filtered through the nostalgia for being a disaffected and disillusioned kid, it becomes a flourishing flashback sequence. This is apparent right away with the few seconds of fuzz that preempt opener “Vote Thatcher”. It’s a raw messiness that’s hard not to equate with those halcyon days. And just as quickly as that blurt of distortion comes in, it morphs into a brilliantly massive guitar hook. There’s a hint of angst, but more importantly a heavy dose of celebratory rebellion. The music feels so big that it can be filled with whatever pretext the listener brings with it. It’s a cleansing wave of rock music ready to cleanse all the dirt and muck of youth.
McClure has built his career as a bedroom pop artist, and while Goodbye Terrible Youth ventures to new sonic heights, the melodies and arrangements from those early works still resonate through here. While American Wrestlers’ 2014 self-titled debut had the rickety fun of DIY recording, Goodbye Terrible Youth carries a sense of perfectionism that’s a huge asset to the project. The track “Terrible Youth”, in particular, is easy to imagine being built out of a bedroom demo. The jangly guitar lines and climbing vocal melodies as they’re heard on the record, though, feel primed for arena rock — or at least the cool club down the road from the arena. It’s a fist-pumping anthem with chunky chords and relatable rhetoric.
It’s not all beer-spilling chant-alongs, though. McClure tones things down on the record a few times. That’s true of the breezy yet still slightly peeved tones of “Give Up”, and also the reflective “Amazing Grace”. The latter, in particular, is a poignant example of the power McClure maintains in the subdued side of his songwriting. It’s a meditation on religion and nationalism, concepts that are often first challenged in adolescence, though for some carry on throughout the rest of life. In a quote provided to the A.V. Club, he notes that the track was partially inspired by the current political election. And if we’re going to tie that in with the themes of youth, imagine being a 15-year-old during today’s mud-slinging: That’s gotta be inspiration enough to grab a guitar, a distortion pedal, and a copy of The Queen Is Dead. Yet McClure produced a brilliant ballad, weighing the heaviness of identity against things like nationalism.
As McClure and co. look backward, their music only progresses forward. Goodbye Terrible Youth is much like teenage years in that way: starting to learn from the world around you what it means to be a functional (or dysfunctional) member of society. The record doesn’t provide any answers for today’s youth, but it does remind that others have gone through it and made it out in one piece. That alone can mean a lot in the throes of angsty youth.
Essential Tracks: “Amazing Grace”, “Terrible Youth”