Pitchfork: “Preoccupations walk a high wire. On the one hand, the Canadian post-punk quartet, who originally took their name from the brutal insurgent group the Viet Cong and only changed it three years into their career after extended protests, tend to come off casually apolitical. “We’re just playing music,” frontman Matt Flegel said regarding the name’s backlash in a 2016 interview. On the other hand, their music often concerns the political sphere and the toll it takes on the psyche. They’ve written songs about the deadening effects of mass media and songs satirizing capitalism’s ethos of progress at any cost. Theirs is dark, paranoid music; Flegel sings as if he’s keeping one eye trained over his shoulder while the world around him drops deeper into chaos.
The contrast between the hapless stance they take in interviews and the tough subjects they tackle sincerely in their lyrics can make Preoccupations feel like two bands at once: one that doesn’t want to be taken too seriously, and one that does. That paradox has lent them an aura of poisoned irony, an air they manage to shake off, somewhat, with their third album, New Material. In a statement, Flegel called the LP an “ode [to] depression and self-sabotage, and looking inward at yourself with extreme hatred.” All of the above are states in which contradictory statements can simultaneously seem true (you have friends but not real friends; drugs are both killing you and keeping you alive), and could also explain how wounded, serious art that urgently wants to be heard comes wrapped up in a name like New Material.
Written collaboratively in the studio, the record furthers the band’s dual focus on moody, industrial atmospheres, and warmly melodic vocal lines. While on their first two albums—2015’s Viet Cong and 2016’s Preoccupations—Flegel often sang against the grain of each song, as if he were competing with the clamor of the instruments, he opts instead to settle into their flow here. On “Doubt” and “Disarray,” his voice sways along with his bandmate Scott Munro’s synth chords, like he’s being carried by a slow, hot breeze. Even as he continues to sing about hopelessness and disillusionment (”It’s easy to see why everything you’ve ever been told is a lie,” he murmurs on “Disarray”), the new arrangements supply an easier entry point into Preoccupations’ music than their earlier works. The band’s defeatism takes on a new tenor: battle-worn, sincere, and not quite so antagonistic. That may mean that New Material lacks the punch of their feisty debut, but it also lends these songs a soothing quality. They’re so heavy they’ve curled up in a ball on the ground.
In addition to adopting a new melodic strategy, Flegel also seems to have narrowed the focus of his lyrics. While Viet Cong and Preoccupations saddled their songs with abstract, worldly woes, *New Material’*s angst is more interpersonal; the lyric sheet is dotted with the word “you” and one of the record’s high points, “Manipulation,” even sees Flegel crying out in romantic torment: “Please don’t remember me like I’ll always remember you,” he sings. The plea comes at the song’s energetic climax, after a towering drum roll, which only deepens its abjection. Instead of asking to be held fondly in someone’s memory, Flegel begs to be forgotten, an artful rendering of the depressive desire to disappear completely.
By staging the album on the battleground of the self, and the self’s relationship to other people instead of society writ large, Preoccupations have made their most intimate album to date. Flegel still goes into a few word-salad tailspins—the “information overdose” and “uneven ratios under a microscope” at the end of “Antidote” sound like someone obliquely complaining about Twitter—but the soft production of his voice, and its holistic integration into the rest of the band’s sound, makes him sound more earnest than before. With New Material, Preoccupations wrestle with a conundrum that’s plagued many denizens of this data-numbed era: how to let yourself be vulnerable when all you want to do is make a joke of your suffering.”