Drop the digital and/or physical needle on Soul Low‘s third full-length album, Cheer Up, and you’re lulled into a false sense of serenity. A one-minute string instrumental opens the proceedings, evoking the ornate and palatial swimming-pool cover art. And then…la la la la, da da da da, da da da da-la da! The impossibly upbeat “Bad Set Of Moods” kicks in like a Mountain Dew sugar rush, all wide-eyed and practically frothing at the mouth. But chip away at the chipper veneer and you’ll find a song about navigating the throes of depression. “If I tell you I don’t need sunshine I want you to call out my bluff” sings Jake Balistreri. “And if I tell you that I don’t feel fine I want you to say I’m enough.” Upon further inspection, the cover art, too, reveals not an open-air mansion, but a depressing Wisconsin Dells hotel pool in the middle of winter. “Cheer up”—the album’s title and its theme—suddenly isn’t a gentle suggestion; it’s a rictus-grin order.
“This record takes a lot of sensibilities, lyrics, and a general mood on the more sad end of things, and then creates this really fun energy underneath it,” says bassist Sam Gehrke. “I don’t want to say it masks the content, but it gives it a nice juxtaposition.”
“It’s cathartic,” says Balistreri. “It’s nice to be able to talk about these kind of dark feelings but also be so in-your-face and poppy. A lot of our fans are younger people, where they’re really coming of age and trying to figure it all out.”
That push-and-pull, that post-adolescent rage and confusion, reverberates throughout Cheer Up. “Tired of the life I know / Raining with no rainbow” sings Balistreri on “Chancin’ In.” It’s a song that laments life’s “ebbs and flows” and the drudgery of “[driving] to another show,” but cloaks it all in a head-bopping barn-burner that grows more manic as it goes along. The title track is even more direct: “Do you wanna die? So do I” Balistreri croons, before offering a resigned “cheer up, everything is fine” capper.
Recorded in the immediate aftermath of 2016’s excellent Nosebleeds, Cheer Up is Soul Low’s most cohesive, of-a-piece album to date. It was no accident. “Nosebleeds was recorded in a basement, so there wasn’t much control over the sound,” says Balistreri. “But this album was so fleshed-out. We had been working on it for over two years, practicing over and over, and when we were ready to go in the studio we knew these songs.”
“Everything between [2013 debut] UNEASY and Cheer Up was done in these unconventional DIY recording situations,” adds Gehrke. “Finally, with Cheer Up, we were just like, fuck it, let’s go back to something where we can have control over everything.”
And yet there was room for in-studio improv, too. “Sad Boy Freestyle” began as little more than a one-off verse, but was slowly crafted into a winning Pixies-esque freak-out that throws some shade Milwaukee’s way (“This stupid place is all I am / Where the great beer’s made by the working man”). The dreamy “Amputee,” too, came to happy-sad life during recording (“Just because your touch feels good doesn’t mean it always will”).
Cheer Up may also be Soul Low’s most accessible album. Whereas Nosebleeds offered a sometimes impenetrable version of the band (no doubt due to the album’s difficult recording process), Cheer Up is gracious with its hooks. “Bad Set Of Moods” and “Chancin’ It” are the clear radio-friendly hits here, but there’s also the sunny-but-self-deprecating “Could Be Nothing” (“There are men who think they’re something / But I am a man who knows he’s nothing”), and the positively unstoppable “Our New Deal” (“Future of mine it is ugly and unkind / All the music’s dead but we are still alive”). Even knottier tracks like “Propose To Me” contain moments of pop-music clarity.
Also included in Cheer Up: a song about Jeffrey Dahmer. “JD & Me” is a hushed whisper of a song that recasts the infamous Milwaukee serial killer as a schoolyard boogeyman. The diffusion makes sense—most of Soul Low were only infants when Dahmer was killed in prison in 1994—but the song may not sit well with folks who remember Dahmer’s crimes firsthand.
But maybe that’s part of Cheer Up‘s theme, too. Life is full of moments of darkness and despair, but it moves on. The pains of one generation become the passed-down tales of another. Still, for listeners of a certain age, it’s worth revisiting those dark times, remembering what it’s like to be young and on-edge, and hopefully sighing in relief that you made it out alive. “I’ve got a bad set of moods and I think it’s gonna be a while ’til they move,” goes the chorus of “Bad Set Of Moods.” Likewise, the pleasures and anxieties of Cheer Up aren’t likely to leave your head anytime soon.