“When I get older, will I remember saying this?” Rachel Browne sings repeatedly at the end of “Plague No. 8,” one of the highlights from Field Mouse’s latest album, Meaning. Confidence is so prized in artists — and people in general — that it’s refreshing to hear a song that deals frankly with uncertainty and doubt, especially about the process of creating the art itself. Almost anyone who has made anything, from a novel to an album to a random blog post, has asked the same question about if there’s any point to it, especially in the social media era where it feels like so much quality work reverberates in an echo chamber and then disappears.
The theme runs throughout Meaning, which contains a level of introspection that is rare and ultimately relatable and endearing. On “Birthday Song,” Browne’s existential crisis continues: “am I gonna make anything that outlives me?” she asks. This clearly comes from real life, and Browne had questioned whether she even wanted to make another album. She’s poured all of those frustrations and fear into her music, and it’s made Meaning into an album that hits surprisingly hard.
The surprising part is because Field Mouse, like the animal they’re named for, are a bit quiet and unassuming. Their songs are unabashedly pretty and catchy, with pleasant guitar parts from Andrew Futral and Browne’s sugary vocals, which are a pop hook in and of themselves. It’s a type of lighter, slightly noisy pop rock that feels more like something from the 90s, when bands like Velocity Girl, Tiger Trap, and Sarge were on the scene. I try not to turn everything into a meta-narrative about who’s “underrated,” but my experience is that music writers tend to undervalue bands like this for whatever reason, probably because it’s not considered cool to write catchy, sweet pop songs that show too much emotion and heart. (See also: Free Cake For Every Creature.)
Meaning plays off the presumptions people might have about their inoffensive sound, luring the listener in with its pop songwriting and then hitting them in the face with Browne’s lyrics. Part of it is how the album is sequenced: it kicks off with “Heart of Gold,” a breezier, more straight-ahead single, then gets gradually darker, with each song raising more questions and fears until it gets to “Plague No. 8” as the penultimate track with the opening lyrics “locusts swarm my body; think they sense a dream dying.” It’s the stand-out song on this album and one of the strongest of the year, a reflection on getting older and wondering if you’ll reach your potential that hits maybe too close to home for me.
Meaning never feels quite as dark as it is because of the sound and Browne’s voice, so it’s an album that ended up sneaking up on me. It’s a great example of how pop songwriting can enhance an album’s storytelling: these songs are all memorable and catchy and when they got stuck in my head, it made me start thinking more about Browne’s lyrics, which are timely and poignant. Despite all of her fears and anxieties, Field Mouse have made an album that deserves to be remembered.