Maybe you’re driving. It’s an iconic highway you’re bulleting down—say, Route 66, the Main Street of America, baby. The top of your car is down, the wind tickles the back of your neck as it lifts up your hair; you let your head go with it. This, this, is liberation.
As you whizz along, you’re thinking of everything you’re leaving behind as you career towards your new life. Even though you know it’s all in the past—some of it best left there—it’s still loss. Nostalgia flowers in your chest, as you remember the face of someone you loved once, and how it looked in a certain light; the places you went with them; how they made you feel giddy and easy and golden. Before.
You’re thankful for your experiences – you still like to luxuriate in them from time to time, letting the best parts of your memories lap over you, as if you were bathing in a natural spring – but you’re older now. You’ve learned. And now you’re free.
In this scenario, various records could be playing out over your speakers. In my version of this drive, one in particular encapsulates the necessary drama, yearning and forward propulsion. And that's It’s Real, the brand new album by Ex Hex, out last Friday March 22.
It’s Real feels suspended in time. As soon as the first showboating guitar riff gambols its way into your ears, you’re taken somewhere else, where everything has the sheen of the way things used to be, viewed through rose-tinted aviators. The album is made up of 13 tracks that seem to be about looking back, but which couldn’t be more forward moving. It’s huge guitar music that centers gentle melancholy over machismo, and also represents a slight change in direction for Ex Hex.
The Washington DC band’s debut album, Rips, was released in 2014. It came in the form of a pile of ten, straight-up punk rock songs, and was widely lauded by critics and fans. The band toured the record relentlessly, and then its prolific members went their separate ways to work on other projects – Betsy Wright made a record with Bad Things, Mary Timony’s band Helium reissued their albums The Dirt of Luck and The Magic City in 2017, and toured around the release, while Laura Harris played with Death Valley Girls.
As frontwoman Timony tells me when we talk about It’s Real over the phone, it took a long time for the album to fully come together—and she sounds relieved. “Eventually we decided we had enough songs to make a record and we did it. It took a bit—like four years— but it’s done, finally!”
Indeed, though there’s been a bit of a wait for the second installment of Ex Hex’s specific brand of rock music alchemy, it’s certainly worth it. It’s Real has upped the ante considerably in terms of the band’s ambition and production style. “The songs we were writing were a little bit less short and direct, and we decided we wanted to have a record that sounded bigger, like it belonged in a bigger space, and more of a three-dimensional kind of sound,” Mary says.
This is exactly what It’s Real achieves—it’s an audacious album that has no care for coolness (therefore making it the coolest thing I’ve heard this year), its glam, hair metal-reminiscent guitars soaring for the duration. The trio poured intention into the many nods to yesteryear that I hear on the album. “I would say that to me, the songs are a little bit more varied in style than they are on the first record,” Mary tells me. “We have kind of a Van Halen, Def Leppard thing happening—we’re going for that, especially with the production style.”
Where this record differs from its cock rocking forebears, though, is in the lyrical content and delivery. Throughout, the vocal production serves to take the pedal off the gas a little, making Timony’s voice feel as though it’s floating above everything – aloof but not unbothered; Debbie Harry-esque. The words she’s singing mark a definite departure from Rips, as she recognizes: “On the first record, the songs were much more bratty, or sassy maybe. I think the lyrics for a lot of these songs are about different kinds of loss, more so than the first record. It’s a little bit more in your head than the first record, which was more direct.”
It’s no mistake that this throwback of a record should take loss and the past as its emotional nucleus, its form and content echoing one another. The opening sentiment of It’s Real, from first track “Tough Enough,” for example, seems almost to set out its fundamental point of view: “I think about it all the time / Remember back when you were mine / Four tears down your golden cheek / Won’t bring that back to be.” There’s so much beauty in how the record’s lyrics remember, and the way they illustrate that our experiences of memory can be induced by the most commonplace events (from “Rainbow Shiner,”: “Here comes the sun / It was shining right through you / On everyone / You came in so hot / You broke the ice up / Feeling so strong”).
And of course, where there is loss, there are also disappointed expectations: On “Diamond Drive,” Timony sings “I wanted to see your face always every day / But you disappeared with no trace and you faded away.” In life, when our hopes are dashed, we have no choice but to move on, and hopefully make the best of what we’ve been taught later on. Ex Hex have chosen to do that by making an enormous rock record from their experiences, and from the way we as humans feel loss, nostalgia, memory. The message at the heart of It’s Real, then, is best summed up by something Mary said to me during our conversation: “Sometimes life really hurts, but music is one of the things that we have that is awesome and beautiful and fun.”
Amen. Turn it up loud, embrace loss, become more of yourself—the same but wiser. It’s getting darker, the blue sky gone pink and purple. Keep going, maybe a little faster now, your foot a little closer to the floor. Drive your Cadillac into the blushing sunset of the future.
You can find Lauren on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.