The Great American Novel—Proper.’s follow-up to their 2019 album I Spent the Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better—might not be an emo album, but it’s obvious that the band still has a love and affinity for the genre. The Great American Novel’s soaring melodies and lyrical wordplay show a clear understanding of what makes emo, emo—even if, musically, the album refuses to settle into the genre.
As early promotion described it, The Great American Novel is a concept album focused through the eyes of a “queer, Black Holden Caulfield-type coming up in the 2010s.”
Lead vocalist and guitarist Erik Garlington’s talent is on display, along with drummer Elijah Watson and bassist Natasha Johnson in this expansive album, where Garlington’s identity as a Black queer man takes front and center, setting the stage for the album’s point of view.
Despite the implications of its title, The Great American Novel is rooted in the specificity of the here and now. We see this played out in songs like “Red, White, & Blue,” where Garlington likens the United States to an abusive partner, grooming its citizens to love and defend it, despite never seeing the same love and care reciprocated.
“McConnell” shares some DNA with Coheed & Cambria – and, believe it or not, System of a Down – but it still manages to feel current and unique to Proper. Garlington poses a series of pointed questions that directly call out the contradictions of Senate Minority Leader and all around abhorrent creature, Mitch McConnell, including: “You attended Dr. King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech but ended up against the voting rights act. What changed?”; “Is there even a person in there? Was there ever? I guess we’ll never know,” and finally, “I know that I will—how does it even feel to know that people will cheer when you go?”
But “McConnell” isn’t the only song looking for answers here. In fact, The Great American Novel is rife with imagined realities. “Huerta” is maybe the most direct exercise in speculation, a song that finds Garlington questioning his place within his ethnic roots as he wonders about what roles he could have filled and the many turns his life could have taken if his grandfather had never left Mexico.
I could’ve been a farmer in the grasslands/I could’ve been a tubist in a corrido band/I could’ve been a telenovela stunt man/Just don’t want to be another dull American
The song also has one of the catchiest hooks on the album and will get stuck in your head, which is welcome because it follows a lull in the middle section of the album, where sonically and tonally the songs tend to blend together. While the themes in The Great American Novel are significant and nuanced, this book could do with the slimming of a few chapters.
The tensions outlined above, between the real and the imagined; the public and the personal; come together early in the album. In the deeply confessional “Jean,” which recounts Garlington’s friendship with Jean Carlos Jiménez-Joseph, recounts the young man’s death by suicide after being held for more than two weeks in solitary confinement in an ICE detention center in 2017. “And the last time we spoke, I was chasing you down for money you owed …I don’t have a rhyme for this. I’m just ashamed,” Garlington sings in his measured, careful way. But then the song shifts, slowly builds toward its closing, a driving melody and vocals that grow and swell until they become almost overwhelming.
Amidst the tight musicianship and booming vocals, I had a hard time finding “the fun” with The Great American Novel thematically. In exploring identity and politics, especially when it comes to the Black queer experience, there’s often a worry of focusing too much on the moments of trauma and pain that we’ve experienced, instead of the many instances of joy and community that can come from this unique perspective that we have.
In the album opener “You Good,” Erik sings about sleeping with men old enough to be his dad. What were those experiences like? Did love blossom? Was there any joy to be found or epiphanies to be had? We get a peek into this window on “The Routine,” where some of these tales are told in a wonderfully catchy chorus, and “Ganymede,” a mid-tempo song about the desire to escape. These songs do offer a nice break of levity in the album, but I would have liked to have heard more songs about that aspect of his journey.
I appreciate the way Proper. isn’t afraid to experiment with normal emo tropes and throw in light elements that you would normally find in the indie rock world. These elements appear again on a later track, “Milk and Honey”, which features layered vocals from Long Neck’s Lily Mastrodimos and horns from Jer Hunter of Skatune Network and We Are the Union.
This is an album reflective of a band who’s more interested in making choices that will best serve the music they want to create than in how listeners might react to their willingness or unwillingness to adhere to genre expectations. Nowhere is this more obvious than in their song “Done Talking,” which is a great example of Proper. stepping outside of genre into something that feels uniquely them. It’s a song that has much more in common with Turnstile’s Glow On and Gilt’s In Windows, Through Mirrors than it does with bands like The Wonder Years or Brand New.
The track is an energetic delight full of confidence, anger, and bravado. It displays the true multitudes of someone who has had to navigate spaces that have tried to keep them quiet. The song perfectly encompasses what I believe the band set out to do when creating this album. Garlington, Watson, and Johnson all shine on the track.
Overall, The Great American Novel is a solid record that misses a few of the marks it’s aiming for. While a tighter edit and wider scope of topic would be welcomed, the band’s vocals, performance, and showmanship is strong, and I look forward to Proper’s continued evolution.
The Great American Novel is out today, March 25th, 2022 on Father/Daughter Records. You can catch out live session with Proper. here or listen to our episode where we discussed their last album here.