When last the world heard from Omaha neo-folk quartet The Good Life, it was 2007 and Tim Kasher had just written a screenplay called Help Wanted Nights. The band’s fourth LP was to serve as an accompaniment to the finished film, and Kasher had even fled the bosom of the Midwest for Los Angeles in an attempt to legitimize the effort. The album of the same name bore little variation musically from the heart-wrenching miasma found on 2004’s Album of the Year, in what were essentially epically sad acoustic ballads and the occasional melodic upswing over Kasher’s invariably bleak breakup lyrics.
A lot can change in eight years. Help Wanted Nights the film was never shot. Kasher released two solo albums and two more Cursive albums. Bassist Stefanie Drootin-Senseney married and had two children, while multi-instrumentalist Ryan Fox moved to Portland and started a cassette tape label, and drummer Roger Lewis continued projects with Conduits and Oquoa. The plan was never to take a hiatus for this long, according to Kasher.
“We never really declared that we were done or anything,” Kasher says from his home in Chicago. “I kept waiting for a window that seemed appropriate to do a Good Life record again, and then I eventually realized that you pretty much have to open the window yourself and make it happen.”
What would eventually become The Good Life’s fifth full-length, Everybody’s Coming Down, started with a phone call from Kasher to Drootin-Senseney. Kasher had already decided to begin writing the frameworks of songs to ensure he was on the right path, but admits he didn’t feel like it was a 100 percent guarantee that anything would happen with The Good Life again anytime soon.
“I had to pose it as a question: Is this something you want to do?” explains Kasher. “I didn’t want to presume that everybody was excited about that, or that that’s how they wanted to spend their 2015 and 2016.”
Once everyone was, in fact, on board, they realized pretty quickly that their creative evolutions over the previous eight years were going to produce a pretty sharp turn from the likes of Help Wanted Nights or Album of the Year. From the instant the dreamy vignette intro of “7 in the Morning” gives way to the grunge-y squall of Fox’s fussy, fuzzy guitar on “Everybody,” it’s immediately evident we’re not dealing with the same Good Life whose metamorphoses began even before Album of the Year, when Blackout and their debut Novena on a Nocturn exposed the bowels of the Nebraskan electro-punk revolution alongside the likes of Omaha brethren The Faint.
The Good Life have emerged from their eight-year cocoon a rowdier, more straightforward (though expectedly quirky, defiantly experimental) rock ‘n’ roll band.
“Even before we had any demos, we talked about [Everybody’s Coming Down] as an electric guitar record, or a rock record,” Fox says. “There’s no acoustic guitar on the record, which I think is a first for us. It’s in contrast to Album of the Year especially. We talked about ‘What would the Album of the Year Good Life think of the new Good Life?’ I think they’d be a little bit scared of us. Like, who are these old weirdos trying to make a rock record?”
Paired with even more bizarre-sounding rockers like “Holy Shit,” a song which bears the mark of Kasher’s time-signature amalgamations and pseudo-defeatist lyricisms, and other standouts like the psychedelic “Flotsam Locked Into a Groove,” the freaky Bowie-esque “Ad Nausea” or “Diving Bell” (just one of many fantastic showcases of Drootin-Senseney’s locked-in harmonies and fluid bass playing), Everybody’s Coming Down sounds like a band with nothing to lose, and a bit of a legacy to regain.
“I had a hard time finding space or a reason to have a low-key, quiet, sad ballad like you would find on those last two Good Life records,” Kasher says. “It just didn’t feel like this record needed or wanted that.”
“The ones that swing the furthest from us are songs like ‘Diving Bell’ and ‘Flotsam Locked Into a Groove,’” Fox says. “They helped to define the edges of the album in a way, whereas a song like ‘Troubadour’s Green Room’ feels a little bit more like our classic sound. Not that we’d done it before, but it felt familiar like an old sweater, whereas those other ones felt like a weird new suit.”
The band has been keeping connected long-distance, spread out as they are across the country. Following initial tracking of bass and drums in Omaha’s ARC Studios, they split up and worked individually at each member’s modest home recording studio setups. Eliminating the big-studio pressure they might have encountered in the past allowed the album to bloom naturally at its own pace, with everyone tinkering on their contributions from within the welcome confines of their very own homes.
“I tend to like writing in isolation anyway,” says Fox. “It works just as well for me because rather than having to annoy everyone and saying, ‘Can we loop that verse 50 times while I hammer this out?’ I can just sit there by myself and do it. It made it more thoughtful, in a way.”
Conceptually, Kasher is a pioneer of whatever the post-punk landscape can be reasonably, loosely considered. As Album of the Year was a thematic 12-song arc of the story of a relationship dying one month at a time, and Help Wanted Nights was to be a musical accompaniment, or soundtrack, to a film (not to mention the conceptual parasols of almost every Cursive record), Kasher is more literarily minded than many songwriters. With this latest Good Life release, the tether is less evident, though still amply frayed.
“I did maintain a loose idea of always coming down off of some sort of high and/or always anticipating the next thing,” explains Kasher. “This feeling of living in a certain limbo between what was and what’s going to be. Depending on the type of person you are or the type of life you live, you’re kind of living in the past or living toward an expected future, but living in the present is kind of difficult to attain.
“It’s also just an ongoing wallowing on aging and death I suppose.”
It’s true, then, that some things, no matter how long you’re away from them, never change.