There’s a fine, fine line between optimism and crushing nihilism, and it’s a border that courses through Ron Gallo’s new album, FOREGROUND MUSIC like the neon orange barriers and construction tape that accent gentrifying neighborhoods across cities everywhere; it’s unavoidable. There’s a central conceit at the heart of this album, which is that we’re probably doomed, but what’s the point in laying down to die instead of raging against the vast and plain as day inequalities that plague our nation and those across the globe? The only thing more pointless than hopefulness is hopelessness, and with this belief, Gallo records an album that confronts the villains of our society and helps those crushed by them by finding a way to laugh at the absurdity of it all. With FOREGROUND MUSIC, Gallo screams at the developers turning neighborhoods into unremarkable AirBnB advertisements, corporate overlords deciding how much music costs, and extremists hell-bent on bringing forth an apocalypse of racial and civil destruction.
For the uninitiated, Gallo’s career has been building towards this moment since he first became popular with the release of Heavy Meta (2017). He moved to Nashville, played shows, signed with a label, hit Coachella, Bonnaroo, Gov Ball, ACL, and toured around the world or played shows with Spoon, Parquet Courts and Wilco. If he wasn’t quite indie royalty, he was adjacent, shining his NPR accolades and framing Vice write-ups. If all this sounds silly, it’s precisely how Gallo felt. “It was bizarre to suddenly be doing all this stuff I never thought I would do, so in January 2018 we put out the ‘Really Nice Guys’ EP, a concept album and mockumentary film commenting on the absurdities of my newfound role as a professional touring musician.” There’s always been a heaping dose of irony in Gallo’s music, but it serves a functional purpose: to interrogate the gap between who we present ourselves as and who we are. That theme animates FOREGROUND MUSIC, which is Gallo at his sharpest, throwing barbs every which way while turning the mirror inwards in equal doses.
The album is, in Gallo’s own words, what an existential crisis would sound like if it could also be fun. Over the course of 11 songs, Gallo displays what Ann Powers once called “literate electricity.” It moves from fuzz to lounge jazz to freaky pop to post-punk and back again to rollicking, truly FUN rock music, all the while taking aim at any and everything. An abbreviated list: male entitlement, the age of anxiety, apathy vs. action, gentrification, narcissism, retail therapy, xenophobia, the dread of future generations, right wing extremists in giant pickup trucks, capitalism, climate change and the experience of having a loved-one who is an addict.
It is a very American album in this sense, one that reflects the sort of person who begs for collective action and gets laughed at by cynics on the left and fear mongers on the right. FOREGROUND MUSIC is highlighted by the screeching dance-punk of “AT LEAST I’M DANCING,” which sounds as close as one can get to shaking their ass while on fire, the broken apocalyptic serenade of “BIG TRUCK ENERGY,” and the deliriously catchy “ANYTHING BUT THIS,” whereas Gallo screams atop guitars that threaten to swallow his voice whole–this is perhaps the best example in music history of someone singing into the void.
Despite the chaos, the broken spirits, and defeated dreams that dance around the merry go round that is FOREGROUND MUSIC, Gallo can’t help but infuse the album with a joyful charm, one that comes from a deep and sincere place of love for people and protecting the things we hold sacred. This is a broken time that leaves winners with bigger pockets than ever and the rest of us with zero, zilch, nada. And yet, Ron Gallo emerges at the end of this album with a mile-wide grin that nobody can wipe off his face. There is love in this album, between Gallo and his listeners, between Gallo and the strum of a guitar, between Gallo and the world. It takes some searching, yes, but by the end of FOREGROUND MUSIC, Ron Gallo makes a staggering and life-affirming conclusion: “The world is completely fucked, but the universe is inside you.”