My discovery of Matt Shonkwiler’s What a Time to Be Alive was entirely serendipitous. I’d posted some music on another blog of mine, he liked it enough to follow the blog, I appreciated the gesture enough to check out his website, I listened to his music, saw that it was free, and downloaded it. Now I’m following the guy on Twitter, and he’s following me. We’ll never meet, never talk, never do more than maybe click on links that we post on Twitter. At best, one of us will re-tweet a link the other has posted. If so moved, one of us might might “heart”something pithy the other has said. Thus are alliances forged in the age of social networking. Thus is the nature of the new friendship.
I mention all of this not because it’s the first time I’ve discovered an artist in this fashion, but because it’s also more or less the subject of Shonkwiler’s EP. As he explains in his liner notes, “What a Time to Be Alive covers the struggles of being a 20-something in the middle of growing up and failing relationships, all while navigating a sea of misinformation in the digital age.” These struggles are captured eloquently in the opening lines of the EP’s opening track: “I don’t want to go back again/Rating every girl I see on a one-to-ten./Like a lab rat, I hit the pleasure button ’til I blacked out.” Other songs build on this theme. “Lie, Lie, Lie,” for example, begins with a musical phrase reminiscent of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and goes on to observe that much of our postmodern guilt over our shortcomings as humans has little to do with real life and everything to do with television. Yet as oppressive as the mediated world may be, Shonkwiler also finds hope in “real life” friendships, as in “Grow Up or Throw Up” in which friends old and new serve as a grounding force in a world where we’re all forced to wear masks of one kind or another. Of course, donning such masks is inevitable — just as it’s inevitable that the friends of our youth must all eventually move onward and upward and out of our lives.
Musically, What a Time to Be Alive mixes light electronica with acoustic guitars, and Shonkwiler stacks his vocals to produce pleasant harmonies with a relaxed, indie DIY vibe. The longest song on the EP runs just over three minutes, and most of them barely break the two-and-a-half minute mark. In other words, no ostentation here. Just simple, heartfelt songs for the generations struggling to make sense of our brave, new mediated world.
What a time to be alive, indeed.