You know the risks. You tell yourself it’s worth it, that you have to put yourself out there, because the act of risking nothing offers nothing. To find love, a heart has to be open and, unfortunately, vulnerable. You accept the risks, you dive in, and, well, you knew this would happen. How could you have opened yourself up to such an obvious outcome? That was dumb and short-sighted. But maybe next time…
This, I think, is the spirit of The Beths’ debut album Future Me Hates Me, my favorite album of 2018.
Over 10 tracks and 39 minutes, the New Zealand group take you through the gamut of dating anxiety, excitement, and frustration. At times it’s fun and playful, but mostly it’s just painful, as Elizabeth Stokes’ voice pulls you up and down and through the ringer, at the same time inviting you to join her highs and forcing you to take in her lows. The song-writing is incredibly poignant, helping the three-part harmonies pierce above frantic drum solos and swirling guitar riffs. The tone is not quite as somber as the track list might suggest, although it’s obviously quite cynical about the entire human dating experience.
As someone who hasn’t done a great deal of dating in the last three-and-a-half years or so, I found the album to be incredibly relatable. At its core, it’s an album about the anxieties that can preclude us from experiencing a pretty big part of life to the fullest, both because it can keep us from engaging and because it can keep us from enjoying the raw emotionality of the dating process.
The title track, Future Me Hates Me, essentially just lays out the case for not even trying. Firing up a dating app or shooting a shot in the DMs (your boy would never; thirsty, corny men) or meeting someone new requires an implicit acceptance of certain risks. In some cases, there’s not even the window for acceptance. These things, if you’re lucky, sometimes just happen. “I never wanted to, I didn’t want to fall / I don’t believe that love’s a good idea at all” is pretty much the Single Hive rallying cry, with “I think I’m doing fine, I think I’m pretty smart / I’m quite convinced that I can keep myself apart” following as a nice sort of statement of general solitary okayness.
Of course, this stance is only so strong. “The walls become thin, and somebody gets in,” and once those feelings start, we – or I, at least – have a lot of trouble keeping barriers up that, logically, I’d like to. As Stokes laments the opening of the “Marlborough Sounds” of vulnerability and emotion – despite the cons she’s examined far outweighing the pros – she prepares herself for the hurt she feels is inevitable. Hence, future her hating the present her. She knew the risks and was willing to let a future version of her deal with it because “There’s something about you I wanna risk going through…” Before long, it’s too late for her, and a cheery, throwback “ba-bah ba” backing vocal picks up in almost mocking tones.
And I mean, that’s it, right? You can be guarded, but once something feels a certain way, there’s not really any stopping the swells of excitement that let you get, not so much carried away, but awash in the way things feel in that exact moment. I can be guilty of this, because the alternative is a sort of apathy and the middle ground eludes me. I feel a lot (#EmoPrince), and there’s an unavoidable vulnerability that comes with that. I’m not really the type to get carried away with actions or plans or big ideas, but I’ll open up and get close and invest quickly. That feeling of getting to know someone deeply and quickly, and feeling that kind of open connection, is just too good a feeling, and if I’ve allowed myself to go that far, I’m not going to hold that part back, nor would I really be able to. Not Running, by far the most optimistic track on the album, explores that moment more deeply.
(I recently read a few good threads on Twitter that explored this a little more, specifically the advantage men have in being able to operate like this. It’s something that’s probably worthy of exploring in a stand-alone piece. Someone meeting your excitement initially and then dropping off unexpectedly really hurts. I’m not sure this is what Uptown Girl is about, but it very well could be. Anyway, it’s something that’s worth reflecting on if you are actively dating.)
Similar themes are explored pretty expertly throughout the album, although Future Me Hates Me is probably the takeaway track.
Little Death is focused far more on the physical element of these new situations, and it’s a remarkable work of matching music to the emotion being evoked. There is a musical urgency from the outset, as Stokes smiles through admitting “You make me feel three glasses in,” the pre-chorus picks up, and, as her voice cracks exclaiming a little death (which I take to mean in the la petite mort sense), a rapid drumline dangles you right at the edge. It’s hard to catch your breath from there, even as Stokes slows her delivery back down for the second verse. A feverish drum breakdown follows and builds right back up into Stokes delivering the chorus with fervor through backing refrains.
That only lasts so long, though, as the outcome dreaded at the top of the album resurfaces. Happy Unhappy is a self told-you-so of sorts. You were just fine on your own and took this stupid risk, and now you’re paying for it by seeing this person’s face everywhere. It’s actually a very cute song about having a passionate crush in isolation, but given where it’s placed on the album, it takes on a sadder tone. It then leads into River Run: Lvl 1, as clever and painful a breakup song as there is.
From there, the album ends with a pair of tracks (Whatever and Less Than Thou) about the complicated endings of such things, where ambiguity serves to intensify the anxiety. If things were difficult when they were going well, once texts are slower to be responded to or plans keep getting cancelled, it’s nearly impossible. At the same time, Stokes frees herself from this by the end of the album, pleading to be left out of that cycle and, we can assume, circling back to where it started.
That Great No One leads off the album despite feeling more about professional than personal anxiety is perhaps a bit strange, but it fits wonderfully if the album is played on repeat, given that it’s inherently about the bouncing back and forth of contrasting ideals in your own head. After you’ve caught your breath, you’ll eventually stumble on the next Future Me Hates Me scenario and start the whole process over again, oscillating between staunch cynicism and meek, can’t-help-yourself optimism.
Despite this being my favorite album of the year (the full list is coming early next week), I’m not sure it will be for everyone. Ignoring thematics, it’s still a very good album. Stokes is incredible, the band has a fun visual appeal in videos, and the small looks I’ve gotten at their live performances suggest they should be a band your favorite band wants on tour with them in 2019. I’m really optimistic about their outlook.
This might be a case where certain personality types don’t really feel the album the same way, though. Their lyrical approach to live is guarded, and an exploration of the emotional refractory period between heartbreaks might not resonate with those who don’t require such periods. I’m not sure a serial dater or a person who spends very little time alone would find Stokes hitting the right emotional notes. I don’t think either approach is right or wrong. If one were, I’m probably on the wrong end of the passivity spectrum here, and Future Me Hates Me carries some baggage underwriting the hesitation. There’s an inherent lack of confidence in the pessimism, as highlighted on You Wouldn’t Like Me, a track about the fear that even if something starts out well, once someone knows the real you, it’s over. (That, I think, has to be one of the most accessible themes on the album.)
I would like to feel and operate differently than this. I’d like to be able to feel hard and bounce right back, to see someone a handful of times, fall quick, mess it up (or just be in the right place at the wrong time), and be fine with it. Were a friend to experience something similar, my advice would be to get back out there, that the situation not working out was likely more about what the other person has going on than anything my friend did or is or isn’t, and that these risks are a necessary and worthwhile part of the human experience. I, however, am a hypocrite.
At the same time, I feel like maybe I’m getting closer to that place where more consistent vulnerability is something I’m willing to accept. The highs are good highs, and the lows are balanced out by a life I’m happy with that doesn’t require dating for fulfillment. Future me might hate me for it, but future me would probably hate me just as much for continuing to disengage from those experiences. And there’s just something about you…