From the Depths of Florida Emerges an Era-Defining Album

"The Whaler” is a full-throated scream of exhaustion and despair

June 21, 2023 6:23 am
home is where band in the studio
Home Is Where in the studio
Joey Tobin / Twitter

My home state of Florida is a place where things go to die, surrounded by all the distractions consumerism can provide and the beaches that haven’t been ruined yet. You either run away or resign yourself to wiling away the years in numbing sunshine. It’s a place of grotesqueries and beauty, of loving families and sad tales of untreated mental illnesses reaching their inevitable conclusions. It’s a place where nothing ever happens except when everything happens.

You can ponder Florida forever in search of answers to why America is the way it is and still never come to a resolution. The Florida fifth-wave emo band Home Is Where don’t arrive at any easy conclusions on their visionary new album The Whaler, and they sound afraid that there just aren’t any answers to be found. But in their perhaps quixotic quest for any kind of meaning, they’ve created an album that instantly feels era-defining, one of the decade’s best, and the most essential missive on Florida decay since Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things.

Home Is Where seemed to appear out of nowhere — or at least out of Palm Coast — with their 2021 debut I Became Birds, which was only 18 minutes but stuffed with enough ideas and strange hooks to qualify as an album. It was an angry, disorienting record that helped launch the fifth wave of emo and helped cement a growing idea that the world of emo and post-hardcore is increasingly the most vital form of guitar-based rock music left.

I Became Birds examined frontwoman Brandon MacDonald’s gender transition, the joyful relief of becoming who you are and the will to push back at anyone standing in the way of your truth. Birds established MacDonald as one of the most confrontational voices rock music has produced in quite some time. (I’m worried I’ll get put on some kind of government watch list if I quote the lyrics of “Assisted harakiri.” )

The band’s follow-up, The Whaler, is a full-throated scream of exhaustion and despair. Equal parts angry and beguiling, it often sounds like Against Me! covering In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It’s filled with the same musical accouterments (mandolin, field recordings, singing saw, tapes loops) that Neutral Milk Hotel used to make their songs feel like they exist just outside of time or were recently unearthed from a century-old capsule. But the lyrics, and the fury they contain, could not be more of the moment. 

Florida governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis is doing everything in his power to make it difficult for trans people like MacDonald and her bandmate, guitarist Tilley Komorny, to even exist. (They’ve both recently left the state.)  But Home Is Where mince no words in describing the psychic cost of cynical Right Wing fear-mongering in the album’s centerpiece “Everyday feels like 9/11,” a righteous blast of catharsis that sounds like it might crash through the wall at any given moment.

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But just as Jeff Mangum used the story of Anne Frank as a way of examining man’s cruelty and whether there’s deeper meaning in life beyond happenstance, MacDonald uses the September 11th attacks as a lens to view a society that has felt pinned in place this century, every step forward met with immediate regression. Things only get dumber and meaner, and we’re quickly running out of time. We’re supposed to be past all this now, we’re supposed to be in the future — but we’re not. MacDonald knows it’s not supposed to be like this. Something has gone wrong, a deep wound that can’t be healed, and we’re stuck.

The album was designed to end “exactly where it began,” MacDonald noted in an interview with Consequence, with the use of decaying tape loops and frequent allusions to whales running amok and your body rebelling against you — which creates a feeling that we’re repeating our own mistakes again and again as the world spins out of control. And being only human, we numb ourselves and try to move forward. Maybe there’s no way out, no answers to be found. As MacDonald theorizes on “Whaling for Sport,” a gentle folk hymn that feels like a lost cut from her idol Bob Dylan, “past the sky, there is more sky,” and then nothing else. 

The Whaler is littered with references to doomed souls, lives gone too soon for reasons we can never understand. In “Daytona 500” — a country-fried ode to Nascar legend Dale Earnhardt, whose 2001 death in Daytona turned him into a Florida saint — people cling to this idea in a town overflowing with roadkill and drunk drivers. The frantic “Chris Farley,” all sighing organs and distorted acoustic guitar blasts, uses the beloved comedian as a holy fool of sorts, almost too beautiful a person, another victim of an uncaring, unhealed world. 

I can’t help but theorize that the frequent mentions of whales is a veiled reference to Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s examinations of the ways men will destroy themselves. It’s clear from the start that Captain Ahab is doomed, but he simply cannot let the whale be. It’s his nature to continue his hunt to the end. Even Ahab knows on some level he will fail, but what if he is wrong? Stubborn hope is what makes us human.

Every pessimist is a wounded optimist, and anger is often the scorned sibling to hope. The Whaler feels too alive, too vital and too angry to just accept a never-ending status quo. It urges us to demand more out of life, to scream, to hold our loved ones closer. Maybe they’ll keep us closer as the world continues to fall off its axis, or maybe they’ll help save us. MacDonald knows it’s tempting to just burn out and give up, to numb yourself to this world. But she won’t do it, at least not all the way, and she doesn’t think you should either. We would be wise to listen.

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