Music with a message can be tough to swallow sometimes. It can get preachy or uncomfortable – think of the Smiths‘ “Meat Is Murder” coming up on your playlist on the drive home from a burger joint. The Spook School’s Try to Be Hopeful is able to carry messages against societal norms without coming off as preaching because the pop-punk songs are so catchy, optimistic, and charming. This is the kind of album your inner teenager will dance to alone in your bedroom, complete with frank discussions of crushes, unconventional relationships, and being different. The Spook School is an Edinburgh-based four-piece fronted by Nye Todd, a transgender man.
The problems with societal norms and binary gender come up on “Richard and Judy,” “Binary,” and “Burn Masculinity.” “Binary” has calls to action like “make them (society) uncomfortable and challenge their ideals,” but the catchy chorus of repeated 0’s and 1’s, layered with the group chanting “I am bigger than a hexadecimal” keep the song upbeat and keep listeners singing along. “Burn Masculinity” can seem heavy when Todd sings that in being a transgender male, he has “to accept that I’ve got to accept a history of persecution and abuse and I’ve got to accept that I’ve inherited a privilege that I should be aware of.” He raises some great points, but angry chorus of “burn, burn, burn, burn masculinity” is catchy and easy to sing. On my first few listens, I assumed that the one female Spook, Anna Cory, took over singing duties for a couple of songs (“Burn” and “Friday Night.”) It turns out that this album was made while Todd was undergoing testosterone treatments; those songs were recorded before his voice had deepened. This adds a whole new level of meaning to “Burn Masculinity” and gives even more to think about as you mull over the lyrics.
Not all of the lyrics school us on the dangers of norms; there are some sweet songs about crushes, love, and modern relationships. There’s a pretty frank consideration of a polyamorous relationship on “August 17th” as Todd wonders if it’s worth risking the feelings of those involved, even though “it feels pretty right tonight.” The arguments are more compelling than Interpol’s “No I in Threesome.” Further questioning relationships, we’re assured that no matter what we’re told about finding our soul mates, it’s O.K. not to be in love on “Everybody Needs to Be in Love.” “Speak When You’re Spoken To” is a danceable ode to an unrequited crush that you’re too shy to talk to. No matter how we identify gender or sexuality spectrums, we’ve all been there. “Vicious Machine” refers to Todd’s heart, which grows fonder in absence. Again, we’ve all been there. My inner teenager is getting all the feels. The eighth track, which on my copy is called “Only Lovers” but is listed as “I Want to Kiss You” on other track listings online, could be a sweet love song for those exploring something new. Todd sings “I want to kiss him, I want to kiss her, I want to run my fingers through your hair and tell you I’ve never done something like this before with someone like you.” Of course, it could also be about being on ecstasy at a party and wanting to kiss everyone. “Friday Night” is a super cute-sounding song with pretty harmonies about a terrible social encounter and hoping the other person will bail. Again, it’s relatable.
The overall sound is pop-punk, but in a classic sense. There’s a strong comparison to the Buzzcocks. Horns come in toward the end of “Only Lovers/I Want to Kiss You” and “August 17th” that present an ‘80s post-punk sound. These songs sound like they could fit in on an ‘80s pop- or post-punk mixtape.
This is a catchy, relatable album from a perspective we don’t get very often. It’s kind of like a great children’s educational cartoon: it gets you thinking, but it sounds so fun that you don’t even realize you’re thinking. So go on, question monogamy and binary gender roles but also let your inner teenager remember that unrequited crush as you dance by yourself.