Power in narrative
Ever since it started as a side project for Matt Sharp in 1994, The Rentals never escaped comparisons to Sharp’s previous band—Weezer. Still fronting The Rentals as its vocalist, Sharp is the group’s only permanent member. Now, Sharp is joined by guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr., delivering an album about space travel, Q36, whose concept is reminiscent of the Weezer’s scrapped project Songs From the Black Hole. Beyond the comparisons, Q36 holds its own ground as Sharp’s distinct songwriting style delivers a brilliantly vivid, high concept project.
The album borrows bizarre and clever imagery to convey complex, timely and deeply human emotions. In “Above This Broken World,” Sharp calls out to a “Mothership” to rescue a loved one from her secular plight. This lyrical theme underlies a complex and evolving tone in the instrumentations to make for an incredibly nuanced track whose chorus travels from poignant to yearning to hopeful and cathartic with every repetition. “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad” uses a different approach to tackle and expand this theme of escapism. The clever and wistful closing track brilliantly borrows an imagined childhood with Elon Musk to express a keen sense of self-regret, returning to his desire to escape and be saved from his bleak reality. The use of imagery to convey complex emotions is also seen in “Spaceships.” The track’s joyful performances are contrasted with the dark lyrical themes of the mentally ill being shipped off into space, making for a wonderfully nuanced and ironic track.
Sharp’s keen sense of irony through the use of contrast makes his songwriting especially poignant. “Great Big Blue” further exemplifies this. While the subtle vocal harmonies float over the evolving and energetic instrumentals, the lyrics constantly juxtapose the dreams and hopes for Challenger Space Shuttle and the specific details of its unfortunate crash, giving the track a sublime poetic feel: “Filled with pride to watch their children fly/ Eleven Thirty, Eastern Standard Time.” Similarly, “Nowhere Girl” features a bombastic beat under sweet and nostalgic vocal melodies that are accented by occasional haunting harmonies, reflecting the ironic and eerie lyrics that describe a group of fifth-graders coming across a female cadaver by a scenic river: “Nowhere Girl, under the clear autumn skies/ Breathless and exposed/ Nowhere Girl, under the tender moonlight/ Naked and alone.” Through irony and contrasts, Sharp brings unmatched nuances to every story he tells.
Musical and thematic parallels between The Rentals and Weezer don’t make Sharp’s recent works feel derivative of his previous collaborations. They show Sharp’s consistency as a musician who has crafted a signature sound that trademarks his work: the wistful synths-infused alt-rock that is heard throughout Q36. The project is both ambitious and bizarre, yet it finds tremendous success through being thematically vivid, sonically focused and lyrically nuanced.