You know a band means something to you when you can remember your first time hearing them.
The first time I heard Mansions, I was a junior in high school working at our local supermarket. About once a week, my older brother (forever shaman of my music tastes) would load up whatever he was listening to on my iPod so I would have new music for bus rides and the lunch breaks where I’d step outside and smoke cigarettes bought for me by a friend. To this day, the songs I associate with that first job – and much of my junior and senior years of high school – are Mansions’, a band skilled at capturing the whirlwind of youthful emotions I was experiencing at the time.
Like all of my favorite music, the music of Christopher Browder seemed to bend genres, first grabbing me as emo-adjacent power-pop and holding onto me as I got older by occasionally presenting itself as experimental singer-songwriter fare. My brother had introduced me to their debut, New Best Friends, and new fan favorite Dig Up the Dead, but for years, my favorite was a B-sides collection that I considered the band’s second album, Best of the B’s. I liked it because of its largely subdued nature, bouncing back and forth between dark confessionals (“Never Enuff,” “Tangerine”) and the kind of songs my friends and I were actively trying to write at the time (“I Swear,” “18th Birthday”). Not only were these songs I identified with, but due to a lack of full-band energy and studio tricks, they were also songs that felt reachable, something I could aspire to recreate with my friends.
12 years later, I’ve felt Mansions grow alongside me. It’s the reason 2020’s somewhat polarizing Big Bad may be my personal favorite project from the band. Not only am I older, but I’ve continued to create music with those same friends I was playing with in high school. With a few records under my belt, I once again feel the weight not only of Browder’s words, but of his musical compass and how it might feel to recreate some of these songs in a studio, let alone a live setting. This is where the band’s newest release, Tuff Luff, lives – somewhere between the brooding energy of Big Bad and the confident aggression of 2013’s Doom Loop, Mansions has managed to create a small-screen power-pop opus, brimming with hooks and garage-band swagger.
Make no mistake, “swagger” is the correct word; just listen to the distortion-laden opening track “Sorry Sorry,” where Browden sneers, “Fuck you, pay me, bow down, kiss my ass,” before hopping into a grungy four-chord chorus of, “I’m through saying sorry, sorry/Let them know I’m stupid angry.” Among the band’s most interesting tricks this time are the transitions between tracks, letting them bleed together in a way that lends to the album’s live feel while differentiating themselves with Browder’s blistering hooks (“Crystal Lake”). Tuff Luff’s power-pop prowess is on full-display on lead single “Underrated,” where Browder delivers inevitable pessimism with a loud pop hook: “Let’s be underrated/So what if it evaporated?/The blank space you created/That’s so underrated.”
Tuff Luff’s defining moment arrives with “Honeymoon,” a song listeners can practically hear an acoustic version of before it was transposed into the explosive version featured on the record (complete with blown-out bass courtesy of longtime member Robin Dove). Elsewhere, a song like “It’s a Joke” hints at the melody of “Close That Door,” harkening back to fan favorites while pushing the band’s sonic capabilities forward. And even when presented with the album’s distorted edges, songs like “2 B w/ People” and “Last Dance” represent the thoughtful fare that caused many fans to fall in love with the band in the first place. It may have a very distinct and cohesive sound, but at its core, Tuff Luff succeeds by offering something for all types of Mansions fans (including newcomers).
Browder has always excelled at producing and sequencing affecting collections of songs, but for all intents and purposes, Tuff Luff may be the band’s best album to date. Regardless of your iteration of Mansions’ sound, it’s hard to imagine a fan of the band not connecting with this record; it just so happens that longtime fans are likely to connect with it in more ways than one. And if we’re lucky, Mansions will continue to grow alongside their fanbase – even if they’re destined to remain underrated.