Since their inception in 2014, New Paltz, New York rock duo Diet Cig have only ever been unapologetically themselves. Singer/guitarist Alex Luciano and drummer Noah Bowman make self-described “slop pop” that uses effervescent, singalong-inspiring indie-punk as a megaphone through which to shout, “It’s okay to not be okay.” That message still comes through loud and clear on their sophomore album Do You Wonder About Me?, a 10-track, 25-minute effort that demonstrates quite a bit of sonic polish and artistic growth despite its slight runtime and sometimes questionable cohesion—the highs are higher than ever, but it’s Diet Cig’s most uneven outing yet, as befitting a young band in flux with a bright future.
Perhaps the album’s most admirable quality is the way Diet Cig’s music itself increasingly reflects their deep-seated ethos of radical self-acceptance. Luciano’s lyrics, per usual, are human almost to a fault, funny, fearless and raw—cathartically unguarded rather than carefully curated—and the duo incorporate both keys and quiet more than ever into their typically straightforward sound, adding new, finer textures to their catchy pop-rock. While the LP’s advance tracks (and opening trifecta) “Thriving,” “Who Are You?” and “Night Terrors” are planted firmly in Diet Cig’s sweet spot, songs like “Priority Mail,” “Worth the Wait” and “Night Terrors (Reprise)” suggest a band going through growing pains, experimenting with a couple of new colors in their palette, and somewhat unsteadily integrating them with the sounds they know best. It’s a flaw that also works to the album’s betterment: Do You Wonder About Me? argues that human beings can’t be afraid to be works in progress, testing the belief that if we put ourselves out there, good things will happen.
If their acclaimed 2017 full-length debut Swear I’m Good At This was Diet Cig leaving adolescence behind and leaping into young adulthood, Do You Wonder About Me? finds them realizing just how difficult being grown-up can be. On Diet Cig’s new songs, their dynamo frontwoman, relatable as ever, grapples with her own mind and body, how she’s perceived, and her struggles to break free of those perceptions—the conflicted admission that she still has feelings for someone who wronged her. Ultimately, what she’s doing is longing for a connection (“Call me and I’ll come over” is a repeated sentiment on the record)—she wants to be wanted, to be contemplated and understood. She wants to be wondered about.
Luciano poses the album’s eponymous question in its opening line over only her guitar, confronting an ex who spurned her while Bowman lies in wait. The musical equivalent of popping right back up after getting knocked down, “Thriving” (Diet Cig’s longest song to date at just 3:43) exhilarates as it throttles up into an uplifting chord progression backed by deft drumming, with Luciano putting on a brave face, complete with tongue in cheek, and refusing to let her subject feel sorry for her. “I’ll play the same songs / over and over / Convince myself I’m grown / I’m older / And I just want you to know / that / I’m thriving, thanks for asking,” she insists, later riffing anthemically over Bowman’s hammering two-handed tom hits. Luciano’s focus stays on this untrustworthy ex on the classically pop-punky “Who Are You?,” leaving them only to return: “I put you out of my head / And I started taking baths again / My moon is in cancer / I wish I was a better slow dancer / So I could tell you all my secrets / Underneath the disco ball / But you’d / never keep them all.” Though a retro arpeggiator appears (courtesy of the band’s longtime producer Chris Daly, who’s overseen both their albums), one of several touches signalling Diet Cig’s increased interest in electronic sounds, it’s Luciano’s chirpy vocals that stand out most, especially on the song’s sticky chorus—she makes being fed up sound fun. Cleanup-batting track “Night Terrors” brings an end to the album’s front-loaded set of “Diet Cig, only more so” songs, centering on Luciano’s “very real and frequent experiences with night terrors and other bizarre sleep activity,” as she explained upon its release. The darkly funny song finds her demanding empathy, rather than inviting it, urging over edgy guitar chords and muted keys, “Let me tell you what it’s like / To freak out your friends / Your lovers.”
From there, Do You Wonder About Me? softens its focus, mixing in the somber, sparsely piano-driven “Priority Mail,” a 54-second showcase of Luciano’s porcelain voice that the band should have explored further, and “Makeout Interlude,” a hushed, coy admission of affection—“I don’t write love songs / but I wrote a song about you,” Luciano sings over gently droning feedback, reverb-laden guitar and Bowman’s sparing drums. Sandwiched between these underdeveloped song sketches, though, is “Broken Body,” the unquestionable centerpiece of the record. Over rolling waves of distorted power chords, Luciano stares her suffering in the face, singing, “If my body’s broken / Does that mean that / I’m broken too?” Bowman’s fleet-fisted drumming gives the song a powerful momentum that builds continuously as Luciano bemoans being “cooped up inside” (we’re right there with you!). Backing vocals and what sound like sleigh bells swirl around her as she offers up the album’s thesis statement, an insistence on staying true to oneself through change, pain and upheaval: “I’m still all the people / I’ve ever been.” Almost as triumphant is the red-hot thrash of “Flash Flood,” eventually to be a surefire highlight in the band’s live set: “I will scream it from / The rooftops that / I am worthy of love [...] And even when I feel small / I am a fucking fast ball,” Luciano wails, towering though her vocals slump low in the mix, asserting her worth over an old-school punk explosion fit for a Circle Jerks record.
Above all, Do You Wonder About Me? is the kind of album that gets you excited to see what Diet Cig do next. It winds down with “Worth the Wait” and “Stare into the Sun,” its two most polished exercises in the duo’s newfound dynamism, and culminates in “Night Terrors (Reprise),” a Postal Service-esque outro in which Daly’s bubbling arpeggiator reemerges, intertwining with Luciano’s modulated vocals and a low, blunted hum to produce synth-pop nirvana. Diet Cig are growing and changing right in front of us—they’re still all the bands they’ve ever been—and proving that their journey is one worth following.
Scott Russell is Paste’s former news editor, his wife’s current husband and his couch’s eternal occupant. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.