Album review: Assemblage 23 is at his most political on ninth album, Mourn

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Assemblage 23 is one of the most dependable bands in the dark electronic scene. The one-man project from Tom Shear has been steadily releasing albums every 3 to 4 years since his first, Contempt, in 1999. His ninth studio album, Mourn, is out today.

Whether it’s a reflection of our current stay-at-home world or simply an outpouring of what Tom is feeling, Mourn feels like a far different affair than most Assemblage 23 records. He’s perhaps best known for fast-paced club anthems that cover emotionally resonant topics like suicide, depression, identity. The secret to Assemblage 23’s success is the first-person lyrics that force listeners to identify with Tom’s emotions: “I am damaged,” “I am lost, “I never felt so alive,” etc.

On Mourn, he does something remarkable: merge Assemblage 23’s well-worn subject matter like trauma and mental health with our current political climate. Mourn is a reflection of what’s happening in the world—and here’s how it’s making me feel.

The album opens with a line that could be all of us in 2020: “A sense of existential dread permeates my aching head.” He sounds pretty exasperated. “I just can’t take it anymore, this is killing me,” he sings on the chorus.

And that’s just getting started!

That song, “Epiphany,” makes way for “Factory,” the album’s standout track and the song that most exquisitely captures what Tom is achieving on Mourn. Here, he’s tackling toxic masculinity head-on. He sings about the way we raise young men to ignore their emotions, a broken system that’s led to the epidemic of angry white males wreaking havoc on American society.

Those first two tracks have the strongest beats on the album and could be its club hits, if clubs were open now. “Epiphany,” in particular, has a playful synthline stretched atop a dark, pounding drum kick and surrounded by swirling layers of electronics. I love it.

From there, the album’s energy feels a bit more subdued, though no less powerful. Mourn will likely make a bigger impact in your headphones than on dancefloors, and it has a nice variety of musical cues to engage your senses. The steady drumbeat of “Anxiety” feels like early futurepop when it was still emerging from electro-industrial, a sound reinforced by the one-word chorus, “anxiety,” delivered in a harsh, electrified whisper. On mid-tempo cut, “Confession,” he takes another direction, channeling Violator-era Depeche Mode.

For me, though, Mourn is carried by its strong socio-political current.

Right now, most of the world’s people are wearing face masks to avoid a global pandemic, California is immersed in blood-red skies from wildfires, and a genuine madman is threatening our democracy.

Several of Mourn’s songs could soundtrack the nightly news. On “Welcome, Apocalypse” and closing track “This House Is Empty,” Tom is practically describing the images we’re seeing live. It feels pretty dire.

“Welcome, Apocalypse” perhaps deserves the most attention. The lyrics detail a desperate scene of empty streets, bare shelves, and little contact with one another. On the chorus, he sings, “We brought this on ourselves.”

It’s a remarkably prescient song that somehow leaves me cold. Tom’s low-registry monotone is one of his charms, but on a song this dreadful, I want to feel his anguish. He’s possibly making an artistic statement by contrasting such tragic subject matter with an emotionally vacant delivery—a trick that reminds me a bit of Seeming’s “Goodnight, London,” whose playful tone contrasted sharply with its end-times message. Still, I think “Welcome, Apocalypse” would be better served if we felt Tom’s pain.

He conveys greater emotion on “This House Is Empty,” which finds Tom repeating the line, “Burn it down,” drawling out the final syllable, as if he’s simply given up on the world.

Like most of Assemblage 23’s albums, the title, Mourn, doesn’t appear in any of the lyrics. But it should be clear by the end of the album what Tom Shear is mourning—if not the end of the world, the death of humanity.

Find Mourn on Bandcamp and Spotify.

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