Once you’ve written about the worst thing you’ve ever been through, where do you go from there? This was the monolithic question facing Jeremy Bolm, vocalist of the LA post-hardcore outfit Touché Amoré, when it came to writing their fifth studio album, Lament.
To be released through Epitaph on the 9th of October, Lament is the band’s first album since 2016’s critically acclaimed Stage Four, which was written about – and as a way of processing – the death of Bolm’s mother, Sandy, following a long battle with cancer. Hailed as “a monumental record of melodic hardcore”, Stage Four was written in a deep state of mourning. Bolm picks through the minutiae of grief while the band deals heavy instrumental blows that crash and pull back in waves, revealing glimpses of serenity like a deep inhale. Writing for Pitchfork at the time, Zoe Camp said its “vivid imagery, anthemic arrangements, and unsuspecting listenability position it as hardcore's Carrie & Lowell”.
Reflecting now, Bolm describes Stage Four as “a necessary record to write” in terms of his wellbeing and handling of grief. “But it wasn’t an enjoyable record to write by any means.”
“The prospect of following Stage Four weighed on me so heavily,” he says, speaking over Zoom from his home in LA, with an iced coffee in one hand and a wall holding his famously vast vinyl collection in the background. “I knew I didn’t want to write any more songs about that subject matter, because: a) I’ve done it already, b) I don’t really want to keep living in that headspace, and c) I need to move on from that, as a human. I could literally write five more albums about it, but that’s not good for me or anybody.”
The gap between Stage Four and Lament is the longest in Touché Amoré’s history. Though the writing process began around the end of 2018, progress was pushed back by touring, touring and more touring. Last year marked the tenth anniversary of their debut album, …To the Beat of a Dead Horse, which they celebrated by re-recording and re-releasing it in full, using the studio time to lay down demos for new songs (“Limelight”, “Come Heroine” and “Reminders”, which would end up on Lament, plus another they ended up scrapping).
The Dead Horse anniversary tour followed in June of 2019. Once that was over, the band entered the studio to trial working with legendary producer Ross Robinson, recording “Deflector” (which would also find its way onto Lament) in the space of a few days. Shortly after, they were offered a big European tour with Deafheaven, then a 21-date US tour with longtime collaborators La Dispute. Then, suddenly, it was 2020.
They hammered their practice space hard throughout January, but Bolm was still in his head about the lyrics, feeling the usual pressure to “do better” than their previous album, while knowing there’s “no way I can write anything deeper than Stage Four”.
After visiting the Epitaph office near his house, and speaking to founder and Bad Religion guitarist, Brett Gurewitz, things began to fall into place. “You don’t need to write a better, deeper record, you just need to write a good record,” Gurewitz advised. “You don’t want to be put in a position where you’re writing something worse than that, because that’s one of the most unspeakable things someone has to go through.”
The sentiment stuck, and Bolm would go on to write some of his most direct and surprisingly playful lyrics to date. He rented a cheap Airbnb in Joshua Tree – deep enough into the desert that it would be a pain in the arse to dip into the city for coffee – and stayed there alone for three days to finish writing. In mid-February, Touché Amoré entered the studio.
"This time around, we need to take a chance with the unfamiliar. Someone who would take us out of our comfort zone," Bolm wrote in a statement when Lament was announced in July. "Enter Ross Robinson. A man who knows no comfort zone."
Ross Robinson, AKA “The Godfather of Nu Metal”, is responsible for some of the most innovative and iconic albums in alternative music history. His list of production credits reads like a back catalogue of Kerrang! covers: Korn, Slipknot and Machine Head in the 1990s; At The Drive-In’s Relationship of Command, the first two Glassjaw albums, The Cure’s self-titled and The Blood Brothers’ …Burn Piano Island Burn in the early 2000s; Cancer Bats, Red Fang and Dead Cross in the 2010s.
“I didn’t let on originally how much he played a role in my entire musical journey as a kid. From Korn to The Cure, I was there for all of it,” says Bolm. “The fact that he was able to make The Blood Brothers, for lack of a better term, ‘listenable’… Like, I love their previous records, but this time they had hooks! It was catchy! It was on a major label, which is insane! Ross was able to truly transform that band, and At The Drive-In, in a lot of ways to make these really, really big records. I don’t think there’s any producer in our lifetime, besides Rick Rubin, that has so much folklore about them.”
Robinson has a reputation for pushing artists in the studio. From allegedly throwing potted plants at Slipknot’s then-drummer Joey Jordison so he’d have to duck them while playing, to knocking instruments out of people’s hands because they weren’t playing “hard” enough, to keeping the tape rolling while Jonathan Davis of Korn had a breakdown in the vocal booth after recording “Daddy” – a traumatic song about his experience of child abuse – as the band kept jamming, Robinson’s approach is an intimidating one. While recording “Deflector” with Touché Amoré to see if the chemistry was there to work on a full album together, Robinson stopped drummer Elliot Babin in the middle of a take to ask: “What colour do you see right now?”
Still, it’s an approach that clearly yields results. Lament is Touché Amoré’s most well rounded and accomplished album to date – which is something that gets said about every Touché Amoré album, but they really do keep levelling up. Both …To The Beat of a Dead Horse (2009) and Parting the Sea Between Brightness and Me (2011) are straight up hardcore albums; unrelenting blasts of anxiety and frustration that dig into the tensions between personal relationships, identity and the constant flux of touring in under 30 minutes. Is Survived By (2013) is more melodic and ambitious in scope, with Bolm considering his musical legacy and the fear that good art can only come from personal torment.
Grief changes you. It hardens you and hollows you out so even the smaller sadnesses hit deeper, but it also compels you to find things to hold on to. The anger and turbulence that underpinned Touché Amoré’s first three albums has dissolved, replaced now by a tendency to look for the light as well as unpack the dark. Bolm doesn’t sit in one feeling or event on Lament, which acts as a companion to Stage Four in that it deals with the destabilised feelings that follow such a monumental loss.
“There was a freedom that came with not tying myself to one specific thing,” says Bolm. “I’m not writing songs about my mother anymore, and I’m not writing songs about necessarily specific grief. I’m writing songs about what my life is and how it’s been changed since that record, or what’s happening in this world since that record.”
“When you’re operating as a songwriter earlier on in life it’s natural to write about the things that are the worst moments and feelings at that time,” offers Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull, who features on Lament’s lead single “Limelight”. “I think there can be a scary sentiment in your head that you won’t be able to write as well if you aren’t going through some sort of tremendous torture, self-imposed or not.”
The song “To Write Content” on Is Survived By is a direct reference to the first conversation Bolm and Hull had when they met through mutual friends around a similar time in their lives – Touché Amoré were signed to Bolm’s favourite label, Deathwish, and touring with bands that changed his life; Andy Hull had just got married, and Manchester Orchestra were doing better than ever. “Man,” said Hull, “it’s hard to write content.”
A slow burner with a killer crescendo, “Limelight” is like “To Write Content” matured with age. It opens with clean picked guitar lines as Bolm sings about the loss of his two dogs, Melissa and Marianne, and being kept afloat by the “comfortable love” of a long-term relationship, then builds to a sublime finish. Hull’s fragile and higher-pitched vocals (“I’m lost now, loss tires”) overlap with Bolm’s rough and ragged screams (“So let’s embrace the twilight / While burning out the limelight”), channeling the dual forces of exhaustion and endurance. When you’ve suffered blow after blow, it’s no longer a question of being able to make good art while feeling content, but of being able to take contentment where you can find it.
“I think Jeremy does an incredible job of shifting through all of those worlds and emotions – funny, sad, surreal, to the point,” says Hull. “Obviously their last album was about something unbelievably tragic, and therefore the music and the words needed to reflect that in order for it to feel real. I thought they handled it with immense grace.”
There are several stand-out and surprising moments on Lament, which sees Touché Amoré embrace tenderness with open arms. For the first time, Bolm touches on his love life as a positive – most notably in Parting The Sea-reminiscent opener “Come Heroine” and the phenomenal “Savoring”, on which they perfect their particular balance of blast-beats and gut-punching melodies. “Reminders” also steps outside Touché’s usual wheelhouse, mixing the political with the personal in a manner inspired by early/mid-2000s Bright Eyes. Written the day Donald Trump was acquitted on both impeachment articles, it leans into gruff punk melodies along the lines of Spraynard or Latterman (drum rolls! Gang chants!) and balances agitated verses with a soaring chorus courtesy of Julien Baker.
Elsewhere, “I’ll Be Your Host” is about being approached after a show by someone wanting to talk about their dead loved ones. “Exit Row” blends frustration with humour, offsetting an intense line like “suffering has no purpose” with a dunk on “Round Here” by Counting Crows – a song that would be perfect if it weren’t for its comically bad bridge (Bolm jokes these are some of his “worst lyrics ever”). “A Broadcast” is a slow, sparse take on Leonard Cohen’s “The Tower Of Song”, guided by a distinct slide guitar.
“What's great about Touché is they change in nudges and stretches through their records,” says Deafheaven vocalist George Clarke over email. “They're always expanding and refining without abandoning their sound. For me, the best example of this is the continued exploration into Americana. Taking cues from California country brings me back to them being from LA – this overarching theme of conflict through their albums. The style choice plants them in LA without needing the beach and, as a plus, ends up becoming an evolution from the more traditional post rock elements they had super early on.”
Lament is a hard-hitting album – literally. Every drum beat, chord and syllable lands with force and assurance. While Stage Four is soaked in sorrow, with Brad Wood (who also produced Placebo’s 1994 debut) perfectly translating the bleary distress of grief, Lament is clear and commanding. Elliot Babin and bassist Tyler Kirby drive the pace in lockstep throughout; guitarists Nick Steinhardt and Clayton Stevens shift seamlessly between chunky chords, sweeping post-rock and forlorn Americana; Bolm’s vocals sound more razor-sharp than usual.
Perhaps it’s down to the time they’ve taken between albums, perhaps the fact that Bolm sung into the same microphone Leonard Cohen used for The Future has imbued the album with a certain resonance – but Robinson’s approach has had an obvious impact.
When Touché Amoré entered the studio, they were hoping to start with “Come Heroine”, a song they felt good about and knew would be the first on the album. Instead, Robinson said, “What’s the song you have the most trouble with? Let’s start with that” – the logic being, if you start from a place of total discomfort and stress, then things only get better from there (he wasn’t wrong, I’m told). Melissa died shortly after Bolm recorded vocals for “Limelight”, so Robinson had him come in and re-sing a verse about her in the past tense. The lyric “we pour ourselves in these sweet white dying dogs” then became “we’ve poured ourselves”. Before all that, he also had Bolm read the lyrics to everyone in the room, going line by line to explain everything in detail. Robinson would ask a question, then he’d ask a follow up question, then he’d ask someone else in the band how it makes them feel.
Clarke, who stopped by the studio that day, says the approach makes sense, considering Robinson is so focused on the emotional energy of capturing a take, and Touché are so propelled by their lyrics.
“[Ross] has a reputation as being high energy and confrontational, which he is, but it stems from this visceral want to extract all the positives he hears in the music,” Clarke explains. “He stands in the live room, moves around, asking for no setups between takes, everything going fast. It's like he uses his own energy as a lightning rod, and when something strikes that – a guitar idea on the fly, or a new drum pattern or drum fill – he catches it.”
Though it dabbles with humour and sweetness in parts, Lament is ultimately a heavy listen. It takes its title from the darkest track on the album, which Bolm felt encompassed how most people tend to handle sorrow: “I lament, then I forget / So I lament, till I reset.”
Grief, after all, isn’t a fixed state. You move in and out of it over time. Whether you’re living with loss, or living with having written such a beloved album about loss that you become a de facto spokesperson for it – walking through a crowd after a show and getting “my sister died of brain cancer last week” instead of a high five – there’s no getting away from it. All you can do is learn to live with it, which is why, more than anything else, the overall state of Lament is “overwhelmed”. Though it begins as a departure from everything you expect from Touché Amoré, closing track “A Forecast” brings the blood pressure down like a hit of Propranolol.
Over a gentle piano part played by Babin, Bolm issues a direct update on what’s been going for him since Stage Four. It’s conversational and emotionally stark, almost as if he’s burst into your living room to announce that he still loves the Coen brothers, is into jazz now by the way, and sometimes feels unsupported by those he assumed would care the most. Then the full band kicks in and we’re hit with a wall of characteristic chaos – but for those two minutes the gap is almost completely closed between Touché Amoré and an audience they have shared so much with for so long. It’s purely by circumstance that it rounds off an album fans would traditionally engage with most in person, at a time when physical connection is off limits.
“I owe it to people to give as much as possible,” Bolm says, matter of factly, when I ask whether he ever worries he’s overshared, even by his own metrics. “That’s always been the goal.”
It’s a weirdly apt way to receive an album like this. Distressed and enduring, alone together. Lamenting and forgetting, lamenting and resetting.
Lament will be released on October 9th via Epitaph. Pre-order it here and listen to the latest single “I’ll Be Your Host” below: