Rarely does a debut album feel like home, but on Difficulty, Big Science’s first full-length, the Chicago band communicates a certain Midwestern displacement, a gentle-jangled despair coming from coming of age in a rudderless era. These yearnings and confidences are juxtaposed with, and elevated by, energetic instrumentation, resulting in a burst of sing-along-your-sorrows indie pop both familiar and novel.
The album begins furtively with “All The Heat Has Escaped,” as breathy vocals float over a pensive organ and gently plucked guitar strings, a kind of opening exhalation to make room for the rest of the album. The band grows direct on “American Gravity,” which takes a literary, political edge, the yawn-warbled chorus “of this abbreviated life” calling to mind those great patriarchs of the New Wave, New Order. The call that “gravitation in America” is “falling in on itself” speaks of paradigms and futures, signaling a thread of the millennial miasma runs through the record.
A big electric riff announces “Blind Our Eyes,” with its crestfallen “woohoo”s among admissions of “lining our feelings with modern slang,” mixing a heady blend of pessimistic pop. With lead single “No One Ever Wakes Up,” Big Science offers an anthem for the Jonathen Franzen set, opening with “Hey darling, you’ve got no brand loyalty / just lost in the supermarket,” a young woman assured by the near-nihilistic chorus of “No one ever wakes up / nothing ever gets better,” lifted up by Cheap Trick-level jangle. “Loose Change Century” further extends the quarter-life crisis, with handwringing that “everything is lost, we have no control,” amid gathering chords and vocal layers for big, breathy echoes of “everyone you know” repeated ad nauseum—evidently, everyone Big Science knows is having a rough time.
The final act begins to lose focus: orchestration retreats into ambience during “Headlight Song,” the drum machines and “ooo-ooohs” sounding like a combination of The Cure and The Killers. Standing at six minutes and at track seven, “Crown For The Hanging” has the position of climax, but, by this point, the we’re-so-bored chorus of “You rattle on and on and on / it’s never ending, for far too long” grows, well, boring. The tense drums and wavy synths of “AM Golden” build a texture as thick as the existential hangover the lyrics describe, and “Subliminal” feels uninspired—unsurprising, as so much of the disc is about a lack of inspiration. Album closer “When You Go, Go Away” is firmly in the New Wave camp, with totemic drums, paranoid synths and interlocking vocals creating a bizarro Fleet Foxes-meets-Blade Runner vibe, with an outro of hummingbird xylophone darting among frustrated guitar riffs, a lonely glimmer of joy in a sea of Difficulty.