Field Study – The Mommyheads Examine Pandemic-Induced Society on ‘Age of Isolation’

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The Mommyheads’ “Age of Isolation” chronicles pandemic-induced uncertainty. Photo – Kevin Condon

As cultural anthropologists, The Mommyheads thoughtfully document the dawning of a new civilization.

The New York City indie pop quartet of Adam Elk (vocals, analog synths, guitar), Michael Holt (electric piano, vocals, synths), Dan Fisherman (drums, vocals) and Jason McNair (bass, recitation) poetically observes, records and shares the everyday habits of people living in newfound COVID-19 solitude.

Together, they produce and present a compelling 10-track report of recent lockdown life known as the Age of Isolation, which runs rampant with TV dinners, ceiling spots, drippy faucets, overgrown facial hair and extended window gazes.

As a follow-up to last year’s New Kings of Pop, The Mommyheads’ cerebral, contemplative 13th album beautifully delves into the psychological, political and social complexities of residing in suspended animation during quarantine. The Age of Isolation also gives new meaning to existential dread during a prolonged era of pandemic-induced uncertainty.

“I always think of records as snapshots or documents of certain time periods. That’s the main reason I like working through the writing and recording process extremely fast. It keeps you in the moment, especially in terms of the feeling and subject matter,” Elk said.

“The LP almost seems like a concept album, but that’s just because it never has the liberty of veering from its theme. I really hope it’s just a time piece and not the new normal.”

The Age of Isolation Chronicles

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“Age of Isolation” melds vintage synths, proggy soundscapes and vivid lyrical imagery across 10 tracks. Artwork – Marc Strömberg

Throughout the Age of Isolation, The Mommyheads intentionally examine isolated thoughts, feelings and actions within an atmospheric backdrop of vintage synths, proggy soundscapes and vivid lyrical imagery.

“Political and social tensions have been running high these last few years. I never considered us a lyrically controversial band up until recently, but I really couldn’t help it on a couple of the tracks. Sometimes it’s extremely cathartic to say what’s on your mind,” Elk said.

Along with his bandmates, Elk thoroughly chronicles the solitary experience of savoring a frozen meal on the melodic ELO-esque opener, “TV Dinner.” It elegantly shares the simple pleasures of convenient cuisine during an uneventful night at home.

Starry, swirling synths engulf listeners as thumping drums, tingling cymbals, subterranean bass and buzzy, pithy electric guitars evoke warm memories of childhood Swanson TV dinners.

In tandem, Elk sings, “Take the knife and break the seal/Let the warm moist air break through its crust/Watch its layer peel/Like a genie in a bottle banging on the glass/Emerging from the ice for a second chance/A rainbow of color; it’s your ninth wonder.”

“‘TV Dinner’ delves into the similarities of growing up as a ‘70s Latchkey kid and the whole current lockdown experience. Getting home from school and waiting for your parents seemed remarkably close to being at home waiting for the world to start up again,” Elk said.

“That feeling of isolation and forced independence was remarkably similar. Making your first TV dinner versus cooking from FreshDirect at home in 2021 had a major déjà vu feeling.”

Once The Mommyheads relish their delectable “TV Dinner,” they eloquently remind listeners to concentrate on their internal and external surroundings on “Don’t Ignore the Air.”

Cautionary bass, anxious drums, rattling cymbals, dazed electric guitars and pensive, fuzzy synths awaken people from their pandemic-fatigued mental state. Holt carefully sings, “The social heart of a French airplane/Pounded me to its edge/My ears broke open to the wind outside,” as “Four Poems About Air” is recited simultaneously by McNair.

“Michael wrote ‘Air’ (including the poems) in the ‘80s about the parts of life – especially nature – that we overlook in industrialized society. It felt relevant during the pandemic, when for some of us, the halt in normalcy let us pause and actually notice the world,” Elk said.

Part of that lengthy pause also includes formulating a thoughtful response to the increasing presence of cancel culture in society on “Statues (Paintings, Poems, and Books).” Undoubtedly Age of Isolation’smost contentious track, it dissects the potential ramifications of erasing painful mistakes from our nation’s history.

A proggy “Statues” symphony of gleaming electric piano, crunchy electric guitars, shaky cymbals, pensive drums, soft bass and somber, alarming synths beckons society to preserve all creative endeavors past and present.

Elk openly sings, “But the moment we tear one down/We’ll have to tear them all to the ground/All books written by bigots, burn them/All paintings made by fascists, melt them/The precarious game of erasing the pain/Where do we draw the line?/The moment we tear one down.”

“This song caused quite a stir in the band and is probably our most controversial lyric ever. I’m not a fan of cancel culture and lean more toward being informed, especially about either side of any controversy. It was eye-opening to play shows in Berlin and see how they never tried to cancel out historically controversial landmarks and memories,” Elk said.

“They left almost everything from World War II standing so we can learn. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it OK to erase it, which could lead some people to make those mistakes again. We decided that even if we couldn’t all agree on the song’s message, it’s still worth being on the LP as a conversation starter. In the end, we decided not to cancel culture the song about cancel culture.”

Outside of debates about cancel culture, The Mommyheads spent six months writing and recording the 10 tracks for Age of Isolation at New York City’s Storefront Music. The band relied on a combination of in-person and remote recording to finalize the album for a September release.

“The band’s influence is always a potent and substantial shift from the original demos, and it’s a wonderful journey playing in a band from start to finish with every track. The irony of recording during COVID in NYC’s Midtown was that it felt safer than anywhere else,” Elk said.

“It was literally a ghost town while the suburbs and exurbs were teeming with people. We did try and record remotely with Michael because he lives the furthest away, but it always felt completely wrong to have three guys playing together and one virtual head bobbing out of time on a laptop.”

Heads continued to bob while recording Age of Isolation, thanks to a unique, extensive collection of analog synthesizers from the late Michael Castellana. Elk purchased the vintage synths from Castellana’s family in 2020 and integrated their lush, magical sounds throughout the album.

“Michael (Castellana) passed away and left behind a wonderful array of synths built from around 1968 to 1984. It was so transformative to acquire such a vast collection of vintage goodness right at the beginning of a major lockdown,” said Elk, who’s heavily inspired by Queen.

“These are the same sounds that were the building blocks for all our favorite prog and new wave recordings from that golden era. They have so much depth and color that you would have the same emotional takeaway from the listening experience, even if it was solely an instrumental record.”

Twists, Caves and Swiss Army Knives

In July, The Mommyheads dropped a new video for “Twists and Turns” from Age of Isolation. Directed by Patrik Karlson, the emotive, artistic video spotlights a man and a woman coming to life on a blank canvas housed inside a historic Swedish home and placed alongside a rocky shoreline.

“I met Patrik around eight years ago through our Swedish contacts and was completely blown away by his acting and filmmaking talents. He is incredibly serious about his craft, but has a very subtle and dry sense of humor,” Elk said.

“He heard an advanced copy of the record and immediately knew that ‘Twists and Turns’ was the perfect fit for his directional style. We were all equally blown away with his delicate interpretation and the way he had visually elevated the song beyond its original footing.”

The band also plans to record and release a video for “Out of the Cave” and edit live footage from their Sept. 2 show in Stockholm, Sweden. The Mommyheads recently embarked on a tour of northern Europe, which included a roster of dates in Sweden and Denmark, and performed a host of U.S. shows along the East Coast this fall.

“We love touring northern Europe and would jump at the chance to return next year. There’s a real lineage of loving smart progressive song-oriented music in that part of the world,” Elk said.

“We have some offers in the Midwest and would love to make it back to Detroit/Ann Arbor around March or April 2022. The real draw for touring is playing markets where we still get significant airplay, like Pittsburgh and Cleveland.”

In addition to live shows, The Mommyheads will reissue their 1991 album, Swiss Army Knife, via Simple Machines on cassette. The March reissue will feature extra tracks and serve as a long-awaited release for longtime fans. Plus, a follow-up to Age of Isolation is on the horizon.

“I spent months transferring those mid-‘80s gems from 35-year-old cassette tapes and had a lot of fun doing it. It has never really had an official release, so it’ll be a nice added color to the catalog,” Elk said.

“We (also) have a fair number of new songs that will be coming out in fall of 2022, which will be our 14th LP and another milestone for us. The only goal at the moment is to make the best music we can possibly make, have fun doing it and keep the filler to a minimum.”

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