Knuckle Puck debut LP proved that poignant pop punk still transpires post-2009, and that most of us need to reunite with our dictionaries. That record’s title, Copacetic, and track names like “True Contrite” proved that the thesaurus is one of Knuckle Puck’s dearest songwriting collaborators, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
“It’s like when you’re in grade school and you’re reading in class and your teacher tells you, ‘If you don’t know the word look it up,’” guitarist Kevin Maida told Noisey last year. “We’re not trying to make it confusing, we would like for people who listen to our band to really delve deeper and figure out what we’re actually trying to say.”
In 2015, “Everything is copacetic” was Knuckle Puck’s motto, emblazoned on concert merchandise and chanted in mosh pits by fans who have hopefully looked up its definition by now. The Chicago band’s second LP Shapeshifter has an easier title to understand, but its meaning is tougher to swallow. After all, this year, the band cannot say 2015’s motto, even sarcastically.
Copacetic was a riff-heavy hodge-podge of emo topics—mental illness, heartbreak, touring the world, missing the girlfriend back home—paired alongside energetic crashing cymbals, Joe Taylor’s vocal strain and the volume cranked all the way up. Knuckle Puck songs often feel like rapidly moving wheels—acceleration taking place within the first beat and maintaining high speed throughout. Shapeshifter has a similar sound, as the band rejoins with Copacetic’s producer Seth Henderson, but now with a narrowed lyrical lens. The sophomore record sounds like a concept album about change: changing relationships, changing surroundings, changing perspectives and changing within oneself, often without even realizing it.
On “Gone,” Shapeshifter’s first single, Taylor opens with a boyish, typical pop punk tone, “I did what I do best/Forgot myself.” The track epitomizes the record’s concept, as Taylor tries to remember who he used to be, asking an ex, “I’m not who you remember/ Just who do you remember?” On “Double Helix,” he ponders, “Can I rewrite my code? Retain the good and purge the bad.” Taylor’s questions instigate more questions for his listeners. How can you change for the positive and avoid the negative? How do you know that you have changed? The record’s title is also referenced on “Gone:” “Shapeshifter you’re never gonna get the girl/ There’s no way back/ Shapeshifter you’re never gonna change the world.” Taylor wonders how he can do something remarkable and world-changing if even he can never stay the same.
That “world-changing” attitude remains on “Everyone Lies to Me,” which is mostly about the lies the government tells, although it would be nice to hear who else has been lying to Taylor. The band makes references that its teen listeners (and adult listeners) will surely need to Google with lines like, “The cash grabs and boomer semantics/ Our dreams are murdered by the mortgage every first of the month” and a mention of infamous Australian experimental psychiatrist Harry Bailey. This track also exhibits Taylor’s vocals at their most satisfyingly hardcore and raspy that deserve more airplay on the rest of the album, and are unfortunately appeased by sweeter Blink-182-like harmonies in the second verse.
“Conduit,” Shapeshifter’s primary vocabulary term, compares a wire’s coating or a channel of water to the shell of a human body. Taylor asks yet another question, “If all you are is under the surface, then why is it so hard to be a conduit?” The tempo is slower, at first sharing an identical mood to Copacetic’s “Ponder.” In the song, a woman tells Taylor she has gone lucid, that what was “under the surface” was temporarily separated from its container. However, Taylor cannot clear his mind. “To forget is to be calm,” he claims. He concludes the song, screaming, “I am aware and I will remember this/ All I am is all this is.”
The idea returns to the original concept of Shapeshifter. Some minds are more malleable than others, and some can reset or even pick up where they left off before change took place. To not be affected by one’s environment, experiences, and gruesome circumstances of 2017, means that you’re not paying attention, you’re a conduit. The final question Taylor asks on Shapeshifter is, “Is there any trace of me left at all?” After this past year, a lot of people are probably asking the same thing, but contrary to what Knuckle Puck suggested on “Gone,” answering “no” probably means you’re capable of changing the world.