narratively structured and encompassing a wide range of styles and sounds, the new album from the NYC prog-rock trio is an ambitious set of songs that exemplifies the band’s affinity for combining influences and tendency to “test the limits”
If we’re being honest, a lot of music basically serves as sonic wallpaper.
You notice it at first. It establishes the tone and it sets the scene. It’s pretty, it’s pleasant, it’s predictable. But then… well, it mostly fades into the background. And at some point you probably forget it’s even there.
Now, there’s definitely nothing wrong with that. You gotta love a good coffee-shop Spotify playlist and there’s nothing better than a stream of inoffensive instrumental music to soundtrack your spreadsheet-ing. It’s predictable, it’s passive and it’s perfectly… pleasant.
Anyway, the new record by Proper. …is not that.
If some music is wallpaper, The Great American Novel is like Pollock attacked a Picasso and then that Italian dude that duct-taped a banana to the wall came in and adhered a full-on fruit salad on top of it all. It’s a skillful mix of styles. Mayhem, with intense intention. It’s unique, it’s beautiful, and I absolutely fucking love it.
Want variety? TGAN‘S got it. Both the instrumentals and the vocals veer between vulnerable and violent, often within one song. Faint, fuzzy guitars meet dark, driving drums while monologues morph into primal screams, sweet harmonies are chased with guttural growls and interludes in cartoonish voices are followed by vicious diatribes—all exemplifying the inherently experimental nature of prog rock as well as the trio’s admitted, and ambitious, tendency to incorporate as many ideas and influences as they can.
TGAN is an album that feels like an anthology, songs that exist as distinctly separate entities yet combine cohesively. While encompassing a range of sounds and themes, there are two clear common threads that emerge throughout the New York trio’s record, tying it all together. One is an exploration of identity: real, perceived and hypothetical. The other is the rebellious streak that runs through it all, a fat, fierce middle finger to both the metaphorical man—be it ICE or the music industry, cancel culture or capitalism—and the literal, most notably in the form of a hearty ‘fuck you’ to Mitch McConnell and his evil equivalents.
Ringing in at 50 minutes and carefully structured with a narrative in mind, with this record Proper. is asking for your time and your attention—and they deserve it. Ringing in at 15 tracks and 50 minutes, the album isn’t simply a set of songs but a sonic journey that begins with a bang and ends, intentionally, on a whimper, and once you’ve made it through the other side, you feel like you’ve been inside the artists’ heads, hearts and bodies. You feel like you might, for a moment, almost understand what it’s like to be them.
Following the release of the record, Erik Garlington sent over some background on the making of the album and the role his bandmates played in building him up as they brought it into the world.
“The intent with this record is for it to ‘read’ like an actual novel. I tried to structure it like one, taking beats from the genre it takes its name from. As is the custom of this band though, we also like to cram as many influences into one piece of work and test the limits. Many times I asked myself and my bandmates, ‘Are we sure this isn’t too much? You’re positive it fits the overall narrative?’ I’m very fortunate to have bandmates that push me to keep songs, ‘Done Talking’ and ‘Juvie’ for example, and advocate for me so hard. We hope it’s an enjoyable experience! Here is The Great American Novel.“
In addition, Erik sent over some background on the album’s 15 tracks, which tackle topics ranging from toxic masculinity to hyper-sexuality, fear of failure to the human nature of your heroes, and everything that comes with being Black, queer and an artist in America.
The Great American Novel —TRACK BY TRACK:
1. “You Good? (In Media Res)“
“I’ve been living reckless, I’ve been breaking bad/I’ve been sleeping with men old enough to be my dad”
“I really just wanted to hit the ground running with a jaw dropping opening line. I think the best great American novels set the tone in that in your face kinda way, letting you know you’re in for a ride. Instrumentally the track is simple, 4 verses of varying intensity, so the lyrics had to be the focus. Keeping with the novel theme, the track starts in the middle of the story so that the following track kinda gives you an idea of how we got here. It’s very much designed to be a teaser song where every line is more dramatic than the last.”
2. “Shuck & Jive“
“Is it still a noose if it’s made from sparkling twine?”
“The music industry is designed for artists to not make money. That’s just the plain and simple of it. You spend years, maybe decades, yearning to be on a label and have representation but then when you get it, you see just how much debt you’re signing yourself up for. This track specifically is about how the ‘bidding war’ for our band felt like shucking and jiving to older straight, white men. We’d get offered a lot of money but be made to feel like we had to tap dance for it.”
3. “Red, White, & Blue“
“Repugnant recidivist, you’ll get away with it”
“Can I cuss on this? Because what I want to say is America fucking sucks, man. It’s just so laaaaame, bruh. No health insurance, no retirement in sight, etc. But it’s not like you can just up and leave, so it’s akin to an abusive relationship where they have all the power and you’ve got Stockholm syndrome about the whole scenario. This is my fate and it’s outside of my power to do anything to make my situation better.”
“You spoke three languages but there’s no talking your way out of this”
“ICE is an evil organization. Jean was such a talented, kindhearted man. We lived together in an old sorority house turned massive living space, with about 10 other people. We were all dumb 20 year olds who’d routine blow our rent money on drugs and alcohol and partying. You know how it goes. So needless to say we ended up evicted and the last thing I did with my old roommates was run them down for money they owed. I’ve burned a lot of bridges in my life but Jean was the one I regret the most. He was an amazing drummer in a funk rock band. He knew I don’t get down with that genre though (Sorry Jean!) so I just wanted to write him something that he’d like. RIP Jean Carlos. We miss you.”
“You swore to pull through for the many, not the few. Liar.”
“This song is the anti-thesis to Jean. They sound nothing alike but they’re sister songs. Jean was the victim, Mitch McConnell is one of the many men responsible for how Jean’s life ended. I try so hard to look at the world as one big grey area but then I’m reminded that people like McConnell exist and I see red. We wrote this song, and album, back in November of 2020 so my selfish worry was that Mitch would die before the song came out. I doubt he’ll hear, and I’m sure he already knows what scum he is, but god, I’d love for him to know how I feel one day.”
“God, my god I hate it/Can’t picture another geocentric year”
“Funnily enough, everyone has been interpreting this song as one of the only uplifting narratives on the record. It’s actually about wanting to kill yourself just hidden behind Greek/Roman mythology and a very on the nose Bright Eyes/Sydney Gish imitation lyrically. Verse 1 is purgatory, verse 2 is hell, verse 3 is attempting to get into heaven, and the final refrain is screaming into the void about wanting to do it but being too afraid to follow through. After living through 2 or 3 once in a lifetime events, it gets kind of hard to see the point in anything. Lockdown got me to a low but I’m happy to say I’ve bounced back. There are things to be hopeful for but sometimes it helps to just write it out.”
7. “Barbershop Interlude“
“Don’t want to go to the barbershop anymore/I’ll grow my hair too my knees and look even less manly”
“Chronologically this is the first song I wrote for the record. We were touring on our last album and made a stop in a Guitar Center and it just came to me. I knew from the jump I wanted to be a short interlude so I sat on it for a couple years until it was time to write LP3. Narrative-wise, it’s pretty straight forward. I didn’t get a hair cut for about 8 years because there’s simply no place for queer men in barbershops, at not when I lived in the South and Midwest.”
8. “In the Van Somewhere Outside of Birmingham”
“We give daps and pounds/and yeah I’ll buy the next round but don’t you dare try to touch me/why would another man want to hug me”
“Toxic masculinity ruins everything. My straight male friends go on about being starved for affection and want to be held, but only by women. Men just create this bubble of suffering for themselves. Especially down in the Bible belt. While I am queer, I couldn’t just show my best friends affection or compliment their outfit when I was growing up. It fucks you up. Even as a queer person, I had a lot to unlearn. This song is one of the big moments for me realizing I can’t live like this.”
“Can’t even think back on my early 20s without wincing”
“I think a lot of people are afraid to fuck up. Not that you should be trying to in the first place but I think Twitter had people forgetting that it’s okay to fail as long as you learn from those failures. Now we’re so quick to make call out posts, which I’m guilty of as well, and try to just delete someone’s entire existence instead of letting them grow. Like, I used to rob people, man. People change, or at least they’re supposed to.”
10. “The Routine“
“Don’t need a witness, because what I do in the privacy of some tech mogul’s Fi Di condo is none of your business”
“On our last record, I mentioned a brief line about hyper sexuality and, to my surprise, a lot of people over the years have said they feel seen. ‘The Routine’ is a deeper dive into it. I don’t do drugs, I’ve only ever tried a cigarette once, so that doesn’t leave many options for vices! Of course it sounds like such a humble brag but being promiscuous does lose it’s luster, especially when you’ve made the terrible, terrible life choice of being attracted to men. The song is about both men and women but I’ve noticed that non-men & non-straight people have been the ones reaching out to say they relate to it.”
“No culture, no place, no land to call my own”
“I write so much about my black experience, which has been a great learning experience in self love, but my Mexican heritage has gotten cast to the side. It’s weird growing up around white people that know their cultural customs and where they came from. I have a Celtic first name, German middle name, and English last name. None of things are really mine. I can’t afford to visit west Africa anytime soon either so you aren’t left with much. Unfortunately the area my mom’s side of the family is currently run by the cartel so I’m just kind of out of luck. ‘Huerta’ is my day dream about what my life as Mexican citizen could’ve been like but then the things that make me ME are so centered in American culture. It’s a weird space to be stuck in.”
12. “Milk & Honey“
“What if you died before me? Am I supposed to just bury you and pretend to keep on living?”
“I will never have children. The world already ended, it’s not happening. I tend to say brash things like that when people (my mom) asks my brothers and I when we’re gonna give her grandbabies. I figured why not make a more poetic attempt to get that point across this time. The lyrics and instrumental intentionally don’t match. I wanted a dreamy, glittery instrumental for this topic to highlight that it’s totally fine to not have kids. We could’ve easily gone the sad bastard route but instead I made a conscious effort to have the ending be almost triumphant in spite of the lyrics.”
13. “Done Talking“
“I WISH A NIGGA WOULD”
“You ever just want to beat the fucking breaks off of someone?? Doesn’t have to be anyone in particular, it’s more about that feeling where you’re just ready to go off. Lyrically, I just wanted to write the most ignorant shit imaginable. I was so afraid to show this one to my bandmates because it’s just so vulgar and insane. I’m glad we kept it because it has gone from a funny ignorant song to something that’s actually cathartic for a lot of black people in the rock world.”
“I wanted to feel some sort of pride so badly”
“Being American is so conflicting. I hate everything about this place but I would be the same person if I wasn’t from here. Growing up is also realizing that your home town/region is actually really great, but things like institutional racism and wealth inequality ruins everything. Americana is both a plea and moment of acceptance. The first half being another Bright Eyes imitation and the second doing a 180 and going for a djent influenced groove.”
15. “Yeah… I’m Good (Epilogue)“
“When I was younger I was gifted, I was gonna go far/but now I’m 30 and I’m bitter reading The Bell Jar”
“We’ve gained a small, dedicated following on being a pretty uplifting, inspirational band. I wanted this record to go out with a wimper. From the lack of drums and bass to the final line literally saying I’m just too tired to be that inspiration you need. It’s incredibly exhausting to be ‘on’ and be someone’s hero. This song, and the entire record really, is to really drive home how human your heroes are. They can be bitter, jealous assholes sometimes and that’s okay. While the album intentionally fizzles out the intent is to leave you with the same level of satisfaction as our 7 minute closers from their last albums.”
Now that you’ve read, it’s time to listen. The Great American Novel isn’t just an album, but an experience. Turn it up, and take it in.
Follow the band at @likerealproper, add their songs to your Spotify playlists and find all things Proper. at likerealproper.com!
Feature image provided by the band: Milla Belanich