Douglas Martin recorded his first record at Sun Studios.
Cosmetic is the sound of a band unraveling. That band is Nots, a group that should become as legendary in their native Memphis as Jerry “the King” Lawler—who took a very specific sound (gnashing guitars and wobbly synths recoiling over propulsive drums, Natalie Hoffman’s immersive half-singing, half-shouting vocals) and streamlined it for maximum impact. Some punk bands try to be aggressive and end up sounding like the overpopulated expanse of generic punk bands in black pants and denim vests. Some punk bands try being weird and end up sounding overly indulgent. Instead, Nots manage to be incredibly visceral and off-center in the most appealing ways.
On We Are Nots, the band incited dance parties about psychic talk shows, fell asleep watching the static on their TV sets, and adorned their cover art with slapdash collages of animals with antlers and movie monsters. But there’s a pervasive darkness casting a shadow over their music. Their debut kept a sprinter’s pace while raging against televangelists (I personally like to think they were watching TD Jakes specifically), hearing and feeling animalistic sounds and urges, and attempting to look inside the hollowed-out shells of figurative zombies who have had the humanity drained from them.
How is Cosmetic even better than that?
If We Are Nots was the sound of a band streamlining the best parts of itself and rushing headlong into the fray, Cosmetic is that band stretching out its legs and going for a long-distance run. It’s not necessarily like they’re going from the 100 meter dash to a 10k; the band’s sophomore album doesn’t take much longer to listen to than their first. But Nots pace themselves here, taking a little more time to explore different themes and structures, picking up different methods to add to their singular approach while writing and recording songs.
“Inherently Low” finds the band at a measured-but-driving pace, featuring a synth line that sounds like a wookie hum and a person at a show with a smile. It’s a love song where the intentions are unclear, sort of like how love really is sometimes, one where the lyrics suggest deep longing and the music is like a soundtrack to people having the time of their lives busting car windows. There is a sense of destructive glee on a few Cosmetic tunes, which is exhibited earlier during the album on the excellent “New Structures,” where Hoffman sings of destruction and “fluorescent rage” while also slurring “I found my way” and playing with her pitch like she controls her voice with a trombone slide.
“Cosmetic” hits at first like a chopped-and-screwed version of a Nots song (a very nice stylistic touch) before flipping a switch to kick things up a notch. There is a distinct, threadbare moment in the middle of the song, just as it’s starting to speed up, where things feel as though they’re about to fall apart. The song, like “Entertain Me” and many Nots songs before it, addresses a cold, distant “you.” Sometimes, like here, the message addresses a power dynamic large and looming and addresses it confrontationally. On “Rat King,” the titular monarch gets a dirt and saliva cocktail for its callous dismissal of themes abstract to its understanding—like death and consequences. Part of the appeal of Nots is how the lyrics are pointed squarely at targets—either the physical embodiment or the structural ideal—they find to be oppressive and dangerous. And they’re not quiet about it when they fire.
There has always been a thin aftertaste of extraterrestrial psychedelia in their music. A spacey, undefinable characteristic that bolsters the singularity of the band. “Entertain Me” works spectacularly as an album closer, as the band allows the song to breathe a while. As good as the punishing velocity of We Are Nots was, songs like opener “Blank Reflection” are greatly benefitted from the middle section, where the guitars sound like ripcords and the synth line gurgles for life. “Rat King” is the band at its most ferocious,the same brutal pace as most of the songs on their first album, and made extremely more violent with that roaring guitar at the front of the mix. Or the part of “Cold Line” where a synth lick sounds submerged in deep water. It’s this willingness to try and render a musical part unmusical—without sacrificing melody or tone—that Nots attempts with great success here.
Overhauling your sound requires a delicate balance. If you’re too much the same, stagnation sets in very quickly. If you’re too different, you often lose sight of the things you were good at. Nots converged onto the scene with a sound that had an economy of moving parts, and they made a severe, unusual, brisk, and compelling album out of it. For lack of a better term, Nots explore new structures on Cosmetic, an unfamiliar approach to a sound seemingly perfected on their first go-round. Many bands could have authored three or four albums in the style of We Are Nots, and they would have all been good. Cosmetic proves Nots are willing to find new spaces hidden inside, behind, and underneath the style they have crafted for themselves — it makes them all the more vital.