In 2014, director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) released a film called Men, Women & Children. The cast of the movie was, at the very least, impressive, featuring Emma Thompson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, J.K. Simmons, Judy Greer, and the rarely-dramatic Adam Sandler, yet, the film was a bomb both critically and financially, grossing a paltry $700,000 stateside and featuring a 31% on Rotten Tomatoes. If you haven’t heard of or Men, Women & Children you’d be forgiven, although you should peruse the “Movies” section of Hulu sometime because fuck, Hulu really wants you to see this movie.
I didn’t see Men, Women & Children. Based on its US Box Office returns, I’m thinking not many people did. But unlike most of America, I was at least aware of the movie’s release because of the trailer, and that trailer alone was enough to turn me off. Men, Women & Children is a movie about people wanting to connect to something, no matter how unhealthy that connection will be for them, while facing down a society that’s utterly disconnected with each other and the world. The trailer is mostly comprised of people on their phones, on their iPads, or on their computers – scrolling Instagram, texting friends, looking up escorts in their area (if you needed to know, yes, Adam Sandler is the one looking for escorts,) etc. In fact, it’s pretty much exclusively that, other than scenes of uncomfortable sex and primitive violence. There’s no talking in the trailer and there’s no subtlety either. The end tagline leaves us with this deeply cynical epilogue: “Discover How Little You Know About The People You Know.”
Now, again, I didn’t see Men, Women & Children, mostly because it appeared to feature Crash-levels of overtly contrived commentary. But that trailer has stuck with me. It’s bleak in such an unapologetic way. Reitman’s (very obvious) thesis is comically on the nose: Technology and social media has filled us with such existential numbness that it is forcing us towards extreme action just to feel something. This need to act out is represented by doing pornography, or getting into fights, or (apparently) staring longingly at your computer looking up escorts in your area while asking yourself “Is this my next Punch Drunk Love?” But that’s not how life is, and I can only assume that audiences and critics probably saw Reitman’s thesis as being extreme to the point of nonsensical.
“The Order Of Things”, which falls smack dab in the middle of Field Mouse’s sophomore release Episodic, is filled with a similar kind of existential numbness. “I’m tired and I want to take up space, I’m lonely and I want to see your face,” whispers lead singer Rachel Browne. “In the order of things, where is my place?” Episodic’s frustrated existentialism, as showcased with “The Order Of Things”, is rooted in a similar desire to connect.
While Field Mouse’s sound is certainly emblematic of Philadelphia’s exploding indie rock scene, their desire to connect with something – ANYTHING – is what will make Episodic a breakout record (in a town producing a LOT of breakthrough records right now.) Episodic is, above all, relatable in its questioning. This yearning showcases itself in a number of ways. Sometimes it’s romantic (“The Mirror”), sometimes it’s isolating (“Over And Out”), and sometimes its violent (“Do You Believe Me Now”) but above all, it’s frustrating.
This frustration is clear. Field Mouse’s last album, 2012’s Hold Still Life, isn’t so much frustrated as it is lingering in its own sadness. The vocals are hidden in the swirling guitars and shoegaze landscapes. Their Bandcamp page tags Episodic as “dreamy” but I think it cuts closer to punk this go-around than their debut album did. The vocals are pushed further forward so Browne’s worldly pain seem obvious and almost pragmatic, and with the help of an all-star crew including Hop Along’s Joe Reinhart, Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis, Swearin’’s Allison Crutchfield, and Cymbals Eat Guitars’ Joseph D’Agostino, the guitars and drums on this album shimmer with both hope and detriment. If Men, Women & Children sold the desire to connect as a hopeless and cold exercise, Field Mouse musically sell it as worthwhile in spite of the pain we’ll likely cause ourselves.
“Validate the pathos, validate the need,” a line from the album’s opener (and lead single) “The Mirror”, is in many ways a far more intriguing tagline for the end of that Reitman trailer. The line could be taken one of two ways: The first is as a dare, a dare that in this case is being directed at a man, but could very well be directed at the universe itself in a moment of isolation, the second as a cry of sympathy, almost as if to say that the universe needs to justify self worth.
Episodic is filled with these kinds of gems – lines of both faith-in-crisis ambiguity and decisively cutting commentary on relationships. “We’ll all forget the times we couldn’t sleep – the spaces in between I feel next to me,” is hardly the most memorable moment on “A Widow With A Terrible Secret” (that would go to the crescendoing guitar breakdowns during the chorus) but it, combined with dozens of other little lyrical moments, feels like Field Mouse creating an identity for themselves as Philly-indie rockers trying to make sense of just how big the world is and how we fit in it.
I think a lot about the Men, Women & Children trailer. I don’t disagree that the world is splintered and disconnected. But I don’t think we’re all doomed. Field Mouse don’t seem to think so either. Even though their album ends on a repeated chant of “It Hurts!”, it’s amid the song collapsing on itself, feedback adamantly fighting Browne’s cries of validation. Maybe the world is splintered and disconnected, and maybe our place in it is less clear amid all the distractions, but like Field Mouse, I think all we can do is find ways to validate our pathos and validate our needs through admission of these pains, not through Reitman’s thesis of taking extreme actions just to be heard and understood. In any case, I think we can agree listening to Field Mouse’s tremendous 2016 album is a far more rewarding experience than watching Adam Sandler try and navigate grossly obvious dramatic roles. Grade: A-