Young Jesus Draws The Fool

John Rossiter navigates mental health, male socialization and leaving his comfort zone on his powerful seventh album as Young Jesus.

Music Reviews Young Jesus
Young Jesus Draws The Fool

When drawing from a tarot deck, The Fool can be an auspicious pull. Despite the imagery—typically depicting a carefree gent perched precariously atop a cliff—the Major Arcana card symbolizes a push into the unknown and the embracing of new beginnings. If you’re in a place of confusion, or you’re feeling defeated, drawing it can be your sign to carry on. At the end of the last session for an album he never thought he’d make, John Rossiter drew this card.

After releasing 2022’s subdued and experimental Shepherd Head, Rossiter had become disillusioned. The album had been an exercise in acceptance, a project he made himself after the lineup of his band, Young Jesus, winnowed down to just himself. A chilling sonic collage, embellished with field recordings capturing both friends and strangers alike, Shepherd Head was a departure from the sprawling, maximal marriage of emo and post-rock that came before it—2020’s Welcome to Conceptual Beach. Though Rossiter bent sounds to his will, like the pitched down piano keys of “Rose Eater,” his rich, bellowing voice remained fixed at the project’s center. After releasing this unique piece of work into the world, he stepped away from music, choosing to pursue a career in landscaping instead.

Shepherd Head would not be the last powerful artistic statement from Rossiter, though. His new routine was disrupted by a chance email from the musician Shahzad Ismaily. The pair met and struck up a friendship, ultimately leading Rossiter to New York to work in Ismaily’s garden. Their time together there led to some low stakes songwriting, and the songs Rossiter began there were unlike anything he’d done before. Eventually bringing Alex Babbitt, Alex Lappin and Phil Weinrobe into the fold, Rossiter moved out of his comfort zone, kneeling to the needs of the song rather than focusing on those of his own. Named for the card he drew, Young Jesus’s seventh album, The Fool, is at once a happy accident and the most moving and considered work that Rossiter has ever put out.

The Fool is often a blank canvas for Rossiter to sketch out stories. Writing songs full of characters isn’t new for him, and the two most prominently featured here aren’t either. Though he isn’t sure why, the characters of Eloise and David—about whom early Young Jesus projects Home, and Young, Innocent, & Hairy are written—are revived here. Amidst the quiet-loud lurches of “Rabbit,” Eloise looks out into a rainy night listening to the splash of cars driving through puddles. It’s a song that, when Rossiter isn’t in the throes of some impressively voice-straining screeds, paints a beautiful picture of quiet, dark spaces and the drama within them. David appears here only in name, in a reference to a strange interaction he had with Eloise that is made towards the song’s end. On “Moonlight,” we’re given more insight into what happened: David, who is Eloise’s doctor, sought her out online and liked a picture she’d just taken late at night. The boundary crossed here is clear to Eloise, but she thinks of the men in her life—that they’ve probably done things this questionable as well. Judgment falls no particular way, it’s just an action that’s taken place and left as such, as though it’s more important we reflect on it in our own time.

The interaction between Rossiter’s unnamed narrator and two middle-aged women on “Brenda & Diane” is similarly fleeting. The propulsive, Springsteen-indebted rocker is a new form for a Young Jesus song to take, but the high-energy pacing underscores the pressure and urgency every character feels. Brenda and Diane are on the run, spending money and gambling themselves into oblivion. Our narrator joins them for a drink, and Diane immediately calls out the pity she senses within him before imparting some wisdom: “Your life is a gift / And you act like it’s a joke.” Brenda and Diane don’t show up throughout the record, and it’s better that way. Their presence is a chance encounter, the kind where both party’s paths could never cross again, and that they did at all is special.

When Rossiter isn’t telling a character’s story, he turns the focus on his own interior life. These songs are honest at their core, and often quite heavy, dealing with serious topics. The Fool is an impressive and engaging work but not an easy listen. Its centerpiece, “Rich,” may well be Rossiter’s masterpiece, but you’ll want to take a moment after finishing it. There are a few different ideas held in the song, and while they are all distinct, they are also tangled together—but Rossiter does his best to parse them. Most strikingly, he sings bluntly about his own mental health struggles, and how mental illness and suicidality are passed down genetically. As he holds this idea in one hand, he also holds the inherited nature of generational wealth in the other—pondering how, though it can’t save people from all struggles, it affords them privilege. People who have family money are more often free to pursue careers in fields like the arts, and he acknowledges the open secret of it all.

Rossiter doesn’t shy away from implicating himself here, either. The song’s first lyric is “I grew up rich and my daddy did, too.” As he reflects on his own position within the mess he laid out, he sings “And the worst of it all is that art saved my life / And the money did too, the money was nice / ‘Cause it bought me a shrink and a warm place to live / And I bought a guitar back when I was a kid.” As those last six words are repeated, two ghostly voices join Rossiter. In one ear, the time-worn voice of an old man repeats the phrase, memories hanging in his words. In the other, a child’s voice, innocent and amused, says it as well. It’s as though Rossiter is accompanied by himself at all points of his life, or by those who have passed and whose lives are still beginning. Either way, the effect is disquieting. Notably—aside from the operatic feats he accomplishes in the song’s chorus—his tone on the verses, which arrives calm in its recitation. Contrast this with “Dancer,” where nearly every word he sings conjures the burning feeling right before bursting into tears. It’s fitting, because for as open as Rossiter is throughout The Fool, there is an unmatched bruised quality to “Dancer”—as he looks back on the way his experiences of abuse as a child have shaped who he is today. He doesn’t hide the ugliness, but Rossiter’s robust, oaken voice eases you into his candor.

Elsewhere, on “MOTY,” which here stands for “Man of the Year,” Rossiter runs through a litany of the ways powerful men fail us: Politicians sell out their morals to appease their donors; beloved actors quietly abuse their wives. The problem is presented as systematic, though, and as he puts it, “the great innovators are boys just frozen at the core.” Rossiter doesn’t exclude himself from this indictment, either. He’s spoken about how stifling male socialization can be (and has been on him). As he barrels through the oddly upbeat, brightly arranged song, his delivery runs the gamut from disillusioned, to furious, to understanding, to hopeful. The piano refrain that buoys it often feels hopeful, too, like the sun breaking through a gray sky.

Song to song, there isn’t much sonic variation, and after the throw-everything-at-the-wall approach he took on Shepherd Head, the bare-boned arrangements here are refreshing. It’s unlikely that Rossiter will make another record like The Fool, but Young Jesus was already an unpredictable project before it, anyway. Though it can often leave you with a sense of discomfort, it’s remarkable that there isn’t a confrontational edge to The Fool. You don’t get the sense that Rossiter is trying to provoke you, necessarily, and you aren’t being asked to give him brownie points for being in touch with his own emotions. Rossiter has, instead, made something open—something that he needed to make, even if he didn’t know he ever could.

Watch Young Jesus’s Paste Session from 2018 below.

Eric Bennett is a music critic in Philadelphia with bylines at Pitchfork, Post-Trash and The Alternative. They are also a co-host of Endless Scroll, a weekly podcast covering the intersection of music and internet culture. You can follow them on Twitter @violet_by_hole.

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