2017 has been in dire need of a new Downtown Boys record. The Providence, R.I.-based punk quintet used 2015’s Full Communism to stand up against white supremacy and heteronormative hegemonic structures, but it carries more weight when the current president embodies everything the band combats.
Cost of Living, Downtown Boys’ third full-length, was written before this year’s inauguration, but its battle cries over centuries of injustices for marginalized people who have been left out of historical (and musical) narratives feels timeless. This is the queer Latinx band’s first release via the Sub Pop label, but that does not suggest that they will adhere to a capitalist, corporate music agenda. With the help of Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, Downtown Boys have not toned down their demands or volume on Cost of Living. Instead, they have tightened their burly brass melodies, lengthened some tracks and even incorporated new instrumental additions, such as a synthesizer on “Lips That Bite,” all to bring vocalist and lyricist Victoria Ruiz’s formidable protest anthems to the forefront.
Within the first few seconds of Cost of Living on “A Wall,” Downtown Boys make it clear that they will not be quiet in the wake of the current president’s racist and xenophobic policies, most notably, that wall that Mexico will apparently be paying for. “A wall is a wall/And nothing more at all,” Ruiz upholds in her signature, splintering shout.
Throughout the record, Ruiz asserts that despite what a policy like a transgender military ban might suggest to its overseers, no law or boundary can erase marginalized communities and the inequalities they experience. As she states on “A Wall,” “You can’t pull the plug on us/I won’t let that go, I’ll never let that go.” On Full Communism, Ruiz powerfully declared, “She’s brown/ She’s smart” on “Monstro,” which became a sort of anthem for the band, even a graduation cap quote. Ruiz masters what feminist punk and riot grrrl has gotten wrong in the past, embracing intersectionality, being a voice to Latinx and queer communities and even giving Bikini Kill’s “Girls to the Front” mantra a new meaning at a Providence inauguration protest concert. “Somos Chulas” may be Cost of Living’s “Monstro,” as Ruiz spits “Somos chulas/No somos pendejas,” which translates to “I’m elegant/intelligent, I’m not dumb.” It is one of three songs sung almost entirely in Spanish on the record—Ruiz has said that Downtown Boys’ lyrics are bilingual “with the intention to speak to as many people as possible.”
Advocating for labor rights have similarly always been central to Downtown Boys’ music, since Ruiz and guitarist Joey La Neve DeFrancesco met while being treated unfairly as workers at a Providence hotel (a job DeFrancesco later quit in rousing fashion). On “I’m Enough,” Ruiz discusses feeling unheard about not making enough money to pay rent, or what one would call a “living wage” or, in this case, the “Cost of Living.” She continues, “It ran so easily/That first blow to those who have everything/We’ll get paid/Yes that’s ours.”
Downtown Boys’ political confrontations appear on macro- and microscopic levels on Cost of Living, including the social politics of performing music. On Full Communism, they addressed the entitled “Tall Boys” who stand at the front of shows and take up all space. On this record, “Promissory Note” frustratingly references what goes on behind the scenes when Downtown Boys perform at exclusive clubs. Ruiz shares an unfortunately common predicament of feeling pressure to make oneself smaller to help someone else—typically, a person in a position of power—feel more comfortable. She hisses, “I won’t light myself on fire to keep you warm/I won’t carry you up that hill/I won’t light myself on fire/ I won’t smile.”
What is most inspiring about Cost of Living is, whether they are addressing workers’ rights, saving net neutrality, the white-cis-het hegemony or police brutality, among countless other topics to manage to fit into a 35-minute album, Downtown Boys stay angry, but are never pessimistic. They reference injustices of the past to plan hope for the future. They do not insult a specific person or community despite their own identities being mocked or judged by their country’s president. They never, ever suggest a thought of giving up. It is this optimistic anger that places the band a tier above the rest. Their fight is far from over, but as they hope on “Violent Complicity,” “It won’t be long/Until they’re playing all our favorite songs,” and we should expect an album as fiercely, positively political as Cost of Living to make the cut for that victory playlist.