Coming from a genre notorious for glorifying teenage angst and spite-ridden suicide, Sorority Noise really only found themselves when they stopped wishing they were dead. In 2015, the band evolved past whiny pop-punk provocation on Joy, Departed, where they added heavier chords, heart-wrenching lyrics, and just enough strings. But maturity comes with setbacks, and for frontman Cameron Boucher, the recent deaths of two friends—one to suicide, one to a heroin overdose—sent him spiraling into anxiety and depression. “It’s hard to tell someone how much you love them when they’re not around anymore,” he told the Fader. “These songs made it permanent for me.”
On new album You’re Not As _____ As You Think, the band behind the tortured, wry “Art School Wannabe” now meditates on that permanence, dramatizing the slow process of recovery. The album starts with Boucher spending sleepless nights struggling with the same “plaguing” issues that drove one friend to suicide. Too grief-stricken to attend the funeral, Boucher instead stays quiet, looking back at the homes of the departed to reflect on his own selfishness. “And I swore I saw you in there / I was looking at myself” he shouts, struggling to detach his own agonizing perspective from a narrative that isn’t really his.
There’s a certain self-absorption to all personal narrative songwriting, and throughout the album, Boucher struggles to reject his own one-track perspective for a grasp at universalism. In an interview with American Songwriter last year, Boucher noted that while almost all of his songwriting comes from lived experience, he’s a big fan of Tom Waits and Father John Misty, and draws from their use of mixed perspectives to broaden the narrative. “First Letter from St. Sean” and “A Better Sun” wrestle with the after-effects of grief on the body, as Bouch studies his own complicity in glorifying suicide. With a tangle of voices and viewpoints, both songs write beyond Boucher’s near-exhaustive projections-of-self to see things from with a larger, more insightful point-of-view.
Faith is a central theme throughout the album, in accordance with the vaguely-Christian understanding that everything happens for a larger, cosmic reason. Boucher has no qualms invoking God or angels, often literalizing the “better place” of the afterlife as one of forgiveness in the eyes of Christian benevolence. Yet “Second Letter from St. Julien,” perhaps the album’s purest distillation of intent, finds Boucher wrestling with his faith, struggling to determine why bad things happen to innocent, compassionate, and loving people. “You say there’s a God, you say you’ve got proof / well I’ve lost friends to heroin, so what’s your God trying to prove?” he sings.
The empty space in the record’s Mad Libs title is wide open for any number of words and subsequent meanings to take root. You’re not as Christian as you think? You’re not as Sad or as Heartbroken, as Worthy of Empathy as those that knew them better? Language only offers so much, and for Boucher, this absence is a weight heavier than what any expression might provide.
But as the fuzz fades and the album finally closes, Boucher swaps this absence for something new. On “New Room,” he grows soft atop acoustic chords, and finally looks forward after all this overwhelming emotional outpouring. Beyond a sonic return to past releases, the track breathes with a certain closure, an acceptance of what’s passed. For a band of this nature, it’s a sign that with enough time, grief does fade. Maybe this is what it means to meet your limit.