The opening track on The Beths’ sophomore record, Jump Rope Gazers, sounds like a blunt apology from frontwoman Elizabeth Stokes to her listeners: “I’m not getting excited,” she trills over the buzz of up-tempo, cheerful guitar riffs and snappy drumming, “‘Cause the thrill isn’t mine to invite in.” But if it isn’t hers, whose is it? “I’m Not Getting Excited” sets Jump Rope Gazers off on the right note, a tone expected from The Beths’ excellent 2018 debut Future Me Hates Me, before segueing into “Dying to Believe,” another bracing, similarly chirpy pop rock song. Maybe Stokes is apologizing for good reason.
Not that Jump Rope Gazers departs altogether from the zippy introductory one-two salvo Stokes launches with cohorts Jonathan Pearce, Benjamin Sinclair and Tristan Deck to kick the album off: The Beths return to that tenor as they go deeper into the tracklisting, picking it back up with “Mars, the God of War.” But as a follow-up to Future Me Hates Me, Jump Rope Gazers reads as introspective verging frequently on melancholic. Maybe after getting the former out of their system, The Beths felt a compelling collective need to take it easier on the latter, or maybe they just found themselves saddled by wistfulness, regrets, a case of the blues and a dash of grief to top off their emotional pyramid.
No matter the story behind the album, Jump Rope Gazers works, but it requires the audience to make allowances as Stokes gets in her feelings. The Beths’ songwriting remains as exciting here as on Future Me Hates Me, absent of tongue-in-cheek cues and motifs, replaced by overarching frankness. “I was just waiting for the grazes on my hands to mend,” she hums on the title track’s outro, recalling a painful memory. “I was afraid of the sting.” She’s talking about things unsaid, or things said without proper forcefulness to someone she loves; in keeping with one of Jump Rope Gazers’ prevailing themes, Stokes is in touch with her own communicative failures, perhaps best embodied on “Do You Want Me Now.”
“I want to tell you something but I don’t know how.” We all know what that’s like: The jammed-up sensation of knowing you have affections to express but but not the facility for expressing them. It’s a bittersweet irony that Stokes expresses her affections so beautifully throughout the record’s duration, admirably buttressed by her bandmates’ alternatingly rip-roaring and thoroughly in-a-funk musicianship. This is what happens, it seems, when a local band with roots in a small corner of the world hits big: They pack up, they bid home farewell, they take to the road (“the road” being a colossal multi-transportational thing that includes asphalt but also flight paths and a surplus of travel exhaustion), and they are over time burdened by thoughts of the place where they live.
This is a fancy way of calling Jump Rope Gazers an album made in dedication to the rigors of homesickness, which is perhaps inappropriate given that The Beths’ work is not fancy at all. It’s honest and unfussy. Stokes, Pearce, Sinclair and Deck make indie rock, and much as they heavily incorporate a new-to-them aesthetic into that indie rock tradition, it’s important to note that Jump Rope Gazers is still an album to rock to, and not in spite of. Tenderness, vulnerability and a good deal of sadness abound here, but that’s OK. It’s OK to be sad. It’s OK to miss the way things were, even if the way things are now is pretty good. Such is the double-edged sword of success. With Jump Rope Gazers, The Beths add new layers to the sound they began establishing two years ago, and those layers are as touching as they are revealing.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.