Album Review: By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Injury Reserve
Like most industries since 2020 began, the music industry saw an extremely tough adaptation to the pandemic, with no way to host tours at the scales they used to be, and growth being almost forced to be completely online. Of course, this is something to mourn and reflect on, but I can’t deny that it pales in comparison to the losses of individual life that continues to mount. In fact, it will probably continue to get worse before it gets better, and it’s easy to grow numb from it. We never really stop scrolling and scrolling through the tragedy that algorithmically tries harder to shock us into action every day.
I feel fried, in the worst way. I thought there was something wrong with me because of how I’ve been handling grief, but the vocabulary has already been invented and seeing people burn out in real time only disheartens me. It’s so much easier to think of death as something far away, until it suddenly isn’t.
Where this album comes in is everything involving the rollout and everything that it ended up being, as well as everything that was missing from it. The most obvious loss to be felt throughout the whole thing is the death of one of the core members of Injury Reserve, Groggs. His death was a painful surprise but the group, now a duo, managed to reconvene and finish the project and named the album “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” per Groggs’s wishes.
The singles that came from this project before release showcased their more experimental and boundary pushing sides. Groggs and Ritchie soulfully bemoan their body pains, revealing their physical and mental stagnation on the song “Knees”. He croons over sharp, melancholy guitar riffs and a beat that seems to be limping in an attempt to keep to the time signature. It really challenges common perception of what a song even is, due to the unorthodox structure and quiet pain that the lyrics are carried over, in a private, yet confessional way. The song “Superman That” sees Ritchie’s vocals float over frenetic, polyrhythmic synth patterns that almost drown the refrain of “Ain’t no saving me, ain’t no saving me or you!”, which helps drive home themes of dependence, feeling ostracized, and wanting rescue. Both of these songs circle around the core tenets of the album thematically and sonically but it doesn’t make the whole listen any less raw or surprising.
The album starts off with “Outside” which sort of acts as a rap-dialogue trying to breach a panic attack, which is the best way I can describe it. The tone is a bit defeatist, mainly focusing on being on one side or the other of a divide, sociologically. The distorted soundscape makes for a fantastic opener and transitions into “Superman That”, which only turns up the distortion and effects, which I don’t even have the language to get into more detail on. The following song, SS San Francisco, features a very low, bluesy guitar riff and accompanying vocals from Zelooperz. The vocal presentation is what comes to mind when you think of “abstract rap” as the bars and flows contain a structure of a train of thought, with quite a lot of edge to it.
Much like the song “Outside” gave me the impression of a stuttering heart rate, panicked gasps, and enough spaciness to make me feel like i was dissociating, the drum work alone in “Footwork in a Forest Fire’’ teleported me to a chase scene where the forest is, predictably on fire, and the only thing the runner can control in order to survive, is their footwork. The panic is also laced through the blasted synths on top and the lyrics urging the listener to preserve themself amidst the smoke, danger, and environmental damage. The commentary in this one can be interpreted to be about climate change, pandemic living, or racial justice, or a mixture of all of them, which makes sense due to the interplay these three topics have been embroiled in since the pandemic started.
“Ground Zero” acts as a continuation of the urgent messaging, and the proximity to disaster as the title relates to the aftermath of 9/11.“Wild Wild West” takes a bit of a wackier approach, while still sticking to the off-kilter production and themes of devastation. The lyrics still go over an overbearing feeling of being dissected and scrutinized, mostly in relation to surveillance and 5g data towers. The paranoia and the braggadocio finds a balance with the panopticon messaging over twangy synths.
“Top Picks for You” is a beautiful spoken word exploration into how death gives ways to new patterns, and how every action taken in life affects others in even the smallest ways. Life is encoded into these actions much like how an algorithm applies to many facets of life whether it’s over the internet, in architecture, or a more subtle ways of the world. In my heart I feel like this is Ritchie and Parker speaking directly to what remains of Groggs, to perhaps remind everyone including themselves, that there is something tangible that people leave behind, matter isn’t really created or destroyed, and grief is really just an extant form of love. Grief gives us a living memory of people who we care about, and that memory lives in the objects and environment we inhabit. Groggs, in a painfully raw way, is still here. His absence is proof of it, somehow. This song reduced me to tears, if you couldn’t tell.
“Postpostpartum” has a structure within the same vein as “Knees”, which is to say, extremely loose, wallowing in distortion, and filled with self-reflective singing and rapping, this time about how the group feel as though they’ve given birth to a new generation of artists with their style, and the birthing has given them a feeling analogous to post-partum depression. There is a self-depreciation that I feel isn’t deserved here though, as Injury Reserve is shaping up to have one of the most dynamic discographies in experimental hip hop, and it’s hard to even pinpoint any(noteworthy) clones or attempts at imitating the group, but the forlorn lyrics and vocal performances do more than enough to carry the song and tie it into “Knees” almost seamlessly.
Bye Storm leaves the album off on a relatively hopeful note despite the turmoil it took to get here. The song notes that when it rains, it really fucking pours, and sometimes the people you rely on during those times rely on you too. In a way it phrases love and pain as antidotes to each other, which makes this feel bittersweet lyrically. It keeps the album from being extremely heavy and despondent.
Beyond any more I can say about the sounds, the lyrics, or composition, this album has left me grieving over a person who’s touched my life briefly, but firmly. There is a toothache in the skull of this album that can be felt throbbing through the tone of the beats, through the projection of Groggs’s now suspended voice talking about pain, toughness, and fear, especially through the music video of the song “Knees’’ which stands as my favorite song. This is in part, because of the visuals. The lights flickering on beat while the silhouette of Groggs’s stands on the other side of Ritchie and Parker, who are both sitting on the stage dejectedly, slumped forward, hands wrung, as Groggs’s voice commands the track, rightfully claiming that the realities of life, are a tough pill to swallow.
It’s easy to try to intellectualize the good qualities of this album, but it would be more honest to just state that I cried a lot, in catharsis and grief, lamenting how grief is really the most extant form of love there might ever be. I fucking love this album, in its abrasive and raw form. It makes me excited about the unknowable future of experimental music, and Injury Reserve’s discography growing ever more daring, unpredictable, and genuine. This was a Mad Max trip on ketamine, in the best way possible, and I hold it in such high esteem, that I have no more words that can encapsulate my feelings. It’s just that great to me.
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