Oso Oso, Real Stories of True People, Who Kind of Looked Like Monsters
In James Baldwin’s 1965 novel Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin follows a young American man in Paris as he floats unaffectedly through relationships with both men and women, never finding happiness. This character, David, opens himself up to no one out of fear of losing his sense of safety to “the dreadful human tangling occurring everywhere, without end, forever.” David considers the idea that all people have their own individual garden of Eden—their own mindless, risk-free state of innocence within which they could presumably live their entire lives. Here, they could be unscathed by the person pain that comes along with being vulnerable, being in true relationship with another person. “Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know,” David says, “but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both.”
Oso Oso’s debut full-length album, Real Stories of True People, Who Kind of Looked Like Monsters, navigates questions and themes that aren’t really so far from those explored in Giovanni’s Room: vocalist and lyricist Jade Lilitri starts this album’s story after the flaming sword has descended, and after that risk-free state of innocence, that first naïve and sheltered understanding of love, has met its end. “When it all folds in on itself, you gotta cushion the fall,” he sings on the album’s opener, “Track 1, Side A.” The song opens with an anxious build-up, a slightly queasy melody that develops slowly only to come to a halt and make way for a much clearer and more playful riff. Lilitri’s vocal phrasing and go-for-broke attitude on this track at times calls to mind Third Eye Blind; he sings in drawn-out syllables and piercing yelps, repeating the rallying cry, “You gotta not be so scared.” This song serves as an opener to the rest of the album, yes, but also as the closer to something we weren’t invited to witness. In this way, we can call our own Eden to mind, and then buckle in for the rest of the ride together.
The album really takes off on track three, “Another Night,” which finds drummer Jimmy Ristano as well as Lilitri (who plays everything on the record except for drums) firing on all cylinders. It’s a fast-paced pop-punk song that features some of the fiercest vocal delivery on the record, and while it would be easy to zone out to the breakneck rhythm and Lilitri’s harmonies, it’s worth making an effort to keep up with the lyrics: “Found an old photograph of you and me / from a day that we spent laying out on the beach / and with every photo I’ve gotta to look underneath / cause nothing is ever as it seems, you know what I mean? / Like I couldn’t smile, cause I forgot to breathe / too consumed with the thought that we’d have to leave.” Following on this song’s heels, “Where You’ve Been Hiding” is a perfect complement to the previous track’s punch. It’s contemplative and meandering, waiting until well past the three-minute mark to shift into high gear, and then providing one of the most satisfying moments on the record. It might be my favorite song on Real Stories of True People, reminding me at both its calmest and loudest points of Northstar (seemingly one of the only early-to-mid-00s band in this genre that has not staged a comeback).
It’s hard not to look at this album track by track, because each song captures a different feeling or a different experience of self-realization. “Wet Grass or Cold Cement” wrestles with guilt, and the see-saw of feeling liberated versus second guessing what might have been in a recently-ended relationship (“I left and got away with it,” Lilitri says with ambivalence); “How It Happened” bemoans the futility of going through the motions with another person, courting someone out of rote, out of habit, rather than out of desire; “Easy Way Out” and “This Must Be a Place” embrace, at last—if somewhat sullenly—responsibility for living in the present moment (or, more accurately, responsibility for the consequences of not living in the present moment): “And I know what they say / you’ve gotta keep yourself protected / like love’s just some selfish game / where I always let them win.”
Lilitri’s vocals are certainly at the forefront of the album, and for some listeners, they will be the make-or-break element to Oso Oso’s music. The most comparable vocalist to Lilitri in this music scene at large might be Tim Landers (of Transit, Misser, and Off and On), although Lilitri’s range stretches a bit further, demonstrated by the way he harmonizes with himself throughout the album (the harmonies at the end of “Josephine” are a definite highlight). Musically, most of these songs are either mid-tempo head-bobbers or hard-driving head-bangers, and plenty of them make use of power chords and palm-muted verses. This is to say, it’s a pop-punk album—despite the fact that its press release seems to go out of its way to deny this, saying that it “thankfully … never stumbles into pop-punk’s shiftless landscape.” But pop-punk doesn’t have to be an insult, and as demonstrated by the songs that make up Real Stories of True People, it doesn’t have to be directionless and gimmicky, either. Lilitri writes compassionate, insightful lyrics about becoming a caring, self-aware person. I mentioned Northstar earlier, and sonically, parts of this album also remind me a bit of Saves the Day, but Oso Oso’s songs are never vindictive or mean-spirited like Northstar or Saves the Day’s sometimes were. These songs are less about finding blame and fault in others in the wake of suffering, and more about recognizing the habits and tendencies in oneself that contribute to loneliness and a lack of engagement.
In Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin writes, “For I am—or I was—one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all—a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named—but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not. … I succeeded very well—by not looking at the universe, by not looking at myself, by remaining, in effect, in constant motion.” In Real Stories of True People, Lilitri slows down this constant motion, and spends the album looking inward. The final line of closing track “This Must Be My Exit,” after all, is a confession: “I was just running away from getting to know myself.”
This whole thing is a bit of a stretch, you might be saying. And it could be; after all, I already happened to be re-reading Giovanni’s Room when I heard this album for the first time. But I’m not trying to suggest that Real Stories of True People is the modern equivalent of Giovanni’s Room or anything along those lines. I’m just saying that Real Stories of True People contains a lot more substance than the average pop-punk album, and it deserves to be taken seriously, because its themes are nothing less than the human condition itself, and learning how to grow from failed relationships—both of which are relevant to, well, all of us. “People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents,” says James Baldwin. “Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”
Or, as Jade Lilitri puts it, “You gotta not be so scared.”
-Matt Metzler, for AbsolutePunk.net