The sound of Ratboys was born on familiar ground. Songwriter Julia Steiner (’14) recalls meeting guitarist Dave Sagan (’15) during her first day on Notre Dame’s campus. It wasn’t long before the two began playing music together around campus — mostly small acoustic shows in and around the dorms. When they started recording, Steiner worked out her parts in the Breen-Philips chapel while Sagan added his elements over breaks. These efforts gave rise to a self-titled EP in 2011 and an influx of new opportunities for live performances and recordings.
In 2015, with Steiner a newly minted English Degree recipient and Sagan in his final year of architecture school, Ratboys released their debut LP via Topshelf — the spare and affecting “AOID.” The album’s instrumentation and production techniques emanated the DIY feel of an underground pop punk record in the vein of The Front Bottoms, but the warm, shambling storytelling delivered over achingly catchy melodies placed Ratboys amongst the alt-country ranks.
On their latest LP, “GN,” Ratboys sticks to “AOID’s” exceptional formula, while at the same time infusing it with a new level of panache and precision.
As a whole, “GN” exhibits far more sonic and thematic consistency than Ratboys’ previous efforts. In an interview/performance with Audiotree, Sagan contrasts “GN’s” unity with the “pieced together vibe” of the lower budget “AOID,” to which Steiner adds, “We really went into [recording] with a solid idea of what we wanted to do and what we wanted to sound like.”
The end result of their expanded vision is still quite dynamic in terms of song style and mood, but every song works together like a well-curated collection of short stories. The delivery of and the topics discussed in these stories shifts and swells with the arrangements, but each works to better the album.
Some tracks are, like many pop-punk and country tracks, deeply personal and even darkly humorous. “Elvis is in the Freezer,” for instance, takes its name from Steiner’s family cat who, upon his death, was promptly shuffled into a freezer so as not to decompose prior to his burial. The track, while ostensibly about the deceased cat, explores the pitfalls of grief as it severs a long friendship. “The Sunny Skies are pleasing / as we travel through the seasons,” Steiner sings over the track’s strangely jovial progression, “To face the day when / We are forced to drop him off.” Her approach here is characteristically twee — hiding mortality in amiability — but the delivery is genuine and rootsy.
Other tracks detail rather obscure historical events, gleaning intimate human stories from far off places and times. The lengthy and brooding “Crying About the Planets” recounts the story of Sir Douglas Mawson, an Australian explorer who, in 1912, found himself alone on the Australian continent after his fellow explorers perished. He traveled in isolation for over a month before he linked up with compatriots. Mawson’s story works perfectly as a dramatic metaphor for simple loneliness, the kind many of us feel daily. It’s quite natural to “cry about the planets” in the “ceaseless stretch of white” that our lives occasionally turn into. When there’s no one to blame on our personal islands, the cosmos make the perfect scapegoat.
“Peter the Wild Boy” serves as the album’s final track and emotional peak. Like “Crying about the Planets,” the lyrics draw inspiration from a real historical figure — a child born in 1713 Germany and raised by the flora and fauna of his local woodlands. He lived a feral existence, never learning the typical modes of human behavior, until George I of Great Britain discovered him on a hunting trip and had the boy delivered to England to live among civilized types. Steiner takes this story and develops it into an homage to sadness as it develops inside of us and eventually explodes. The song opens with a soft, acoustic backdrop as Steiner describes the oddity of sadness in terms of Peter’s surreal otherness — “He’s a mess, he’s a man, what should we do with him? / He saw a tree, called it Mom, and she called him Son.” Then, as the song crescendos with drums and strings, Steiner incrementally inserts the poignant chorus — “Peter, what makes you sad? / And how in the world did you let it get this bad?”
These tracks, along with the rest on “GN,” provide a fascinating mix of whimsical tonalities, academic inquiry, personal statements of nuanced emotion and distant warmth that few bands in the indie-rock community have ever been able to achieve. The album, without any pretense or overt push for intensity, reaches vast emotional depths. The record’s true value may require a couple of listens (and possibly some outside research), but every minute spent with these tracks will be worth the time.
Favorite Track: “Peter the Wild Boy”
If you like: Julien Baker, Pinegrove, Diet Cig
Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5