Softcult - See You In The Dark

24 March 2023  •  Filed under ,

Softly raging against the machine. 🤘🤘🤘🤘🤘

“Why do I like this?”

It’s a good question to ask yourself about anything, and the one I want to answer most when writing about any of my musical fascinations. I’m not interested in making music reviews, though that trap is all too easy to fall into. It’s more interesting to push to the center of that core question, because what’s there is inevitably personal, and—if I’m lucky—revelatory. The challenge is part of the fun; it’s often difficult to pin down or articulate the answer, or it’s embarrassing or uncomfortable. Introspection isn’t easy.

I wrote about Softcult soon after discovering them in 2021, and answered this question to the best of my ability at the time: yes, the spirit of the 90’s is alive in the music, and for someone of my *cough* age, that’s naturally appealing; on a purely sonic level, it’s incredible. Yes, I very much appreciate the focused, anthemic quality of the songs and the way that they seek to take a very specific thought, pull the thread, and weave something greater. And, yes, I really like the overall aesthetic, attitude, and sincerity of this band. It could end there, and that would be fine. Sometimes music doesn’t travel any deeper.

But what about this music? Is there more left unsaid? The passage of time and the band’s continued, steady output has given me repeated opportunities to think about the question, and—yeah—there’s definitely more to say.

This is what Softcult makes: beautiful, barbed anthems enveloped in a style that calls back to 90s alt rock, shoegaze, and grunge, filtered through an acute pop sensibility.

I spent last year fully aware that I was using music as a coping and escape mechanism for *gestures everywhere*. As I sit here and look back, though, I’m now aware of something else: that this musical current I’ve been swept up in has also been about connecting. I realized that a lot of what I’ve been listening to has a common thread: discovering kinship and empathy in the musical stories of people of different cultures, languages, orientations, ages, and identities. Music can be a window into understanding more fully the hearts, minds, and truth of others. As music has moved me, I’ve sought to learn more about the people and stories behind the songs, taking that connection and using it to draw closer, particularly to the alien, the mistreated, and the marginalized. And to myself, too.

Softcult is easily the most meaningful contributor to this empathetic current. As music that shines a light into dim corners and fights for a more equitable future, that’s a big part of why I’m drawn to them. The songs have clarity & purpose, and although the band is always setting their sights on broader topics, the majority of their catalog to date speaks to the struggling, the anxious, the abused, and the harassed, and the behaviors that seek to damage people who are already fighting to keep their head above water. They’re absolutely the most pure embodiment of punk and riot grrrl ideologies that I know of right now.

This music encourages empathy and self-acceptance in a way I haven’t felt before, and that’s why I like it.

The band just put out their third EP in as many years, called See You In The Dark. It’s easily their best release yet, distilling the familiar pains found in earlier releases into more concentrated doses and reaching into new spaces. I had a draft of this article ready to publish weeks ago, though; since the band releases most of their songs as singles every few months, the EP releases are more ceremonial events, celebrating and codifying the songs as a collection. The representation of an era.

But the band holds one song back for the EP releases. I was almost asleep when the Discord notification lit up my phone: the music video for the final song had just been uploaded to YouTube. I popped in my AirPods and clicked the link. Maybe it was the late hour, or the already-overwhelming feelings from having seen the band play live just a couple days ago, but I wasn’t prepared to hear a song that would make me feel something so strong as to scrap my emotionally-measured draft and start over. But here we are, at 1:30 AM, doing just that.

First of all, “Spoiled” is just an achingly gorgeous song, building from soft verses to soaring, pedal-heavy choruses. At this point, I don’t think it’s possible for the band to put out a song I’m not going to love deeply. It’s a weird feeling, because I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever experienced something like this in my life, and that it should happen at my crusty, cynical age has felt like an undeserved blessing, a steady tide slowly washing away what’s been weighing me down.

When I listen to this song, it makes me think about the the way we see or feel about ourselves and the effect that has on us and others as we move through the world around us. I can think of at least four or five other Softcult songs that explore different aspects of this same theme. What impresses me about “Spoiled”, though, is that it seems to acknowledge a certain duality; the lyrics refer to the subject of the song in opposites—“I’m water, I’m oil / I’m rotten, I’m spoiled”. Rotten and spoiled are obviously synonyms, but I realized that—since we’re dealing in opposites here—“spoiled” could easily be meant in the overindulged, pampered definition of the word. The song is melancholy enough as it is, but listening to it with this alternate meaning of “spoiled” in mind hit me like a ton of bricks; a sudden, vivid portrait of a fundamentally good person who can’t seem to fully resolve their shortcomings and love themself, or allow themself to believe that others could love them; this “spoiled”, privileged, blessed person who still sees themselves as “rotten”. I mean, damn. Watching them sing those words while floating in a pool of tears broke my heart.

The band always releases a statement about each song, so there’s a chance I’ll find out more about what makes this song tick, and if my interpretation comes anywhere close. In any case, this vignette in my mind is here to stay. The combination of that realization paired with watching the music video put it straight into core memory.

“One Of A Million” is another introspective song on this EP that I think pulls from the same cloth, folding the bitter resignation of individuality into woozy guitars and soft vocals that let the listener glide just above the knife’s edge without being cut. The dreamy, gentle vibe belies an uncomfortable proposition: that the individuality and uniqueness we believe to possess is so often a shared attribute. We sometimes fearfully guard our individuality and feel threatened when it’s compromised, but we can use our similarity as an advantage (as long as we’re not all similarly awful people). These are deep thoughts, and kind of a rarity in rock music. I’m just so incredibly impressed by this band, all the time.

This music explores the myriad relationships we have with ourselves and with others, and that’s why I like it.

“Love Song” comes right before “Spoiled”, a weighty, emotional track that I’m also hopelessly obsessed with. It’s an indulgently sweet, absolutely reverb-soaked confession that genuinely feels like that moment of surrender, when all caution falls away and leaves nothing standing between two hearts. That moment can be heavy and scary, a blissful threshold that carries with it the fear of losing it all. It’s vulnerable, touching, beautiful, and anxious—a mixture of contrasting emotions that makes it very much a Softcult song and steers it far from common love song tropes. “I get so carried away”, they sing, as the swell of the final chorus pushes out, lush and gorgeous, parting the curtain to the warmth of euphoria. Yeah, I may have cried. It’s quickly become one of my favorite songs. Like, ever.

This music is emotionally unafraid, and that’s why I like it.

I feel like I’m going to write about every song on this EP by the end of this. “Drain” and “Dress” are a couple more standout tracks that lean more aggressive. The older I get, the more I appreciate the unique power in being young and hungry and righteously pissed off; it’s possible to remain indignant well into adulthood, but the youthful energy is hard to maintain. It’s all too easy to get tangled in the system and let it wear us down, so it’s refreshing to see intensity undimmed by time.

“Drain” is the EP’s first track and immediately bares its teeth, tearing into the the rich & powerful for their part in plundering the planet and accelerating climate change. “What a privilege it is getting old; I hope I live to be so cynical” the chorus sneers—both a poetic burn and a scathing indictment of the ruin that careless industry has unleashed. The drop-tuned guitar makes the low end boil and the choruses crush, giving the song the highs and lows of resigned anger and helplessness that surround this issue.

This music puts abusers on blast and frames their damage in human consequences, and that’s why I like it.

This is what Softcult makes: beautiful, barbed anthems enveloped in a style that calls back to 90s alt rock, shoegaze, and grunge, filtered through an acute pop sensibility. It’s a delightful combination that lends itself to anything from introspective explorations to fist-in-the-air battle cries.

“Dress” sharpens the point of last year’s gripping Year Of The Snake track “BWBB”, marrying a bouncy—perhaps even jaunty—tune with an unequivocal rebuke of non-consensual acts. “It’s a dress, not a yes” 1 is a classic feminist rallying cry, first directed back at police who advised women to not “dress like sluts” if they wanted to avoid being assaulted. Set to music, it’s an unforgettable mantra that no presentational choice should ever be considered an invitation or justification for violence. Softcult’s statement for “Dress”:

“This song is about consent; it’s about saying ‘no’ and having it happen to you anyway. It’s about being followed while walking alone at night or being cornered in a bar when we’re just trying to have a night out with our friends. It’s about the lingering fear and trauma that haunts us long after these experiences have happened. It’s about how these experiences make us feel powerless and change the way we see ourselves.”

This music demands a universal change in the human heart and an end to hurting each other, and that’s why I like it.

All of this is compelling enough on its own, but add to it the band’s ingrained DIY ethic, and it becomes even more special. I’ve heard them describe their aesthetic as “purposefully shitty,” 2 which is both humble & funny, but I disagree. I mean, it is purposeful, but I think their brand—thick soundscapes, uncomplicated treatments, cut & paste photocopy collages, copious film grain & trippy effects, and self-produced tracks—makes the band feel really approachable. The siblings take on so much: songwriting, recording, production, video conception & direction, graphic design, and merch. None of that is remotely shitty, but rather a clear reflection of the closely-held, hand made identity of the band. Softcult is a monument to authenticity, taking control of your creativity on your own terms, and sharing a true representation of yourself. The “this is just us, and we’re doing it ourselves” vibe surrounding them is so vulnerable, encouraging, and refreshing. I love it to death, and wish there was more of it in the world.

Like I said, I just saw Softcult play live, so the dopamine is flowing more freely than usual. Still, I see their star rising and can’t help but feel excited that this combination of aesthetic, sound, and message is clearly resonating. Music can serve as both a bullhorn and a shield, exposing issues and gathering listeners into a safe space. Anyone can sympathize with the themes expressed in the music and many can empathize, having lived through some really hard things. It gives me nothing but joy to see the band’s monthly listeners and social media followers grow, and for the chance it gives every ear to reflect, understand, and work with whatever influence they have to make the world a more equitable and peaceful place for everyone.

We all have a voice, small as it may seem. Music can be a powerful amplifier, turning whispers into movements. We need more good hearts on display in this world, and I’m glad Softcult isn’t afraid to show us theirs. 🖤🤍

  1. Shira Tarrant, It’s a Dress, Not a Yes, Ms. Magazine
  2. The Peer Pleasure Podcast, Episode 313 – Mercedes Arn-Horn (Softcult) – [16:45]

© Jared Christensen

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I get so carried away...