Anyone looking for an all-encompassing statement-of-purpose for SOFT, the hyper-caffeinated new record from Rathborne will find it in the first line of the second song when Luke Rathborne – chief songwriter and principle persona – hiccups, “Heard you gotta get it in motion.” From that moment on, SOFT never stops moving bounding from one jagged-edged neo-New Wave song to the next, marrying the fast-and-loose ethos of The Ramones with the coiled neurosis of early Devo and the melodic ease of classic R.E.M. and Big Star. “The feeling of the record is incredible energy,” says Rathborne. “Youthfulness, lust — the feeling of breaking out of yourself, unchaining yourself, forcing yourself to be free.”
That same spirit of optimism and restlessness also characterizes Rathborne’s career to date. He learned how to play guitar at age 12, when a stranger who was passing through the small town in Northern Maine where Rathborne lived left the instrument at his house (“There was a lot of freewheelin’ types passing through my house when we were kids,” he chuckles). Inspired by the DIY spirit of punk rock, he recorded his first album, After Dark, when he was just 16 years old, sneaking into the recording studio of his local college late at night and teaching himself how to use the equipment. “I guess ambition when you’re young is really unusual,” Rathborne says, “But I just couldn’t really find a place in high school.” Rathborne relocated to New York when he was just 18, where he connected with famed Tin Pan Alleyproducer Joey Levine. From there, Rathborne began steadily honing his skills, booking himself a weeklong UK tour, netting a slot opening for The Strokes atSXSW and recording the EP I Can Be One/Dog Years, which earned him an appearance on theBBC’s 6 Music. “In the course of making those records,” he says, “I’ve gone from being a 16-year-old kid to being an adult.”
That maturity is evident throughout SOFT, a story of heartbreak and redemption that told in spit-shinedBuddy Holly vocal melodies. Produced byRathborne and Emery Dobyns (Antony & the Johnsons, Battles, Noah & the Whale), with mixing and co-production by Gus Oberg and The Strokes’ Albert Hammond, Jr., the record nestles honey-sweet hooks inside tangles of guitar andDarren Will’s percolating bass. “Some of the punk bands I had been in as a teenager sounded like this, “Rathborne says, “So it’s a ‘return to punk’ for me in some ways.”
That comes through in songs like “Wanna Be You,” where Rathborne sighs and pines over a whistling synth line and a taut cluster of guitar that recalls vintage Nick Lowe. “That’s really a song about identity,” Rathborne explains. “It’s about figuring out why people love each other, why they want to be each other, and when that crosses the line.” “Last Forgiven,” which Rathborne says is about “redemption and yearning,” cruises and dips like a roller coaster going half-speed.
Despair and hope co-mingle in “So Long NYC,” a speed-racing, Guided By Voices-style power-pop number in which Rathborne flips the mythologizing associated with New York on its head. “It’s like the antithesis of a Frank Sinatra song,” he says. “There was a point for about a year where I was crashing between peoples’ apartments, walking around feeling hungry. I would work in a bar near Union Square and then walk around the streets after it was dark. Wandering through New York City late at night when everyone else was asleep, It made me feel like I had stumbled onto something secret.”
That contradictory impulse – romanticism andcynicism, energy and exhaustion, is what powersSOFT, and what dusts its cotton candy melodies with a fine layer of grit. “As you get older, the feeling of being drawn between love and cynicism grows exponentially – almost like someone in medieval times being stretched out on a rack,” Rathborne says. “Art is about making a connection between those things.” That’s what Rathborne does throughoutSOFT, and the results are as infectious as they are complex. “There’s something hidden in there for everyone,” Rathborne explains. “We’re all reaching for something, and art helps people deal with those things. I hope people realize the album is about something deeper than what’s on the surface. It’s a record about hope and redemption and energy and possibility. And hopefully, it can be a record about people’s lives.”