On the song “IDC” from Chastity Belt’s slouchy, laconic 2015 release Time to Go Home, lead singer and guitarist Julia Shapiro wonders, “Is it cool not to care?” Before the song’s end, she’s finally decided, “I don’t care,” droning the words over and over like an incantation she’s trying to assure herself of. She sounds as if she’s trying to unknot a zen koan: Does she not care about being cool—or is she just pretending, to hide her true feelings? The ambiguity suggests that even she herself isn’t sure.
On Chastity Belt’s new album, I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone, out now on Hardly Art, it becomes apparent that she does in fact care all too much for her liking, and would give anything to not care quite so much. “Wonder what it feels like not to care,” she muses on “It’s Obvious.” And on “Used to Spend,” she admits, “I wanna have some self control/I wanna be sincere/But nothing’s ever really free when/You’re living in fear.” The nonchalant instrumentals desperately strive to give off an air of apathy, while the vocals and lyrics betray the brainwaves of a troubled and turbulent mind. A portrait emerges of a restless, ruminative loner, imprisoned by her overwhelming desire to be liked and accepted.
The record functions as a bittersweet sequel to Time to Go Home. Here, Chastity Belt’s prickly, protective edges are newly sanded down and softened: The opener “Different Now” brims with a self-compassion and tenderness unprecedented in the band’s previous work, so gentle it will take your breath away. And different it is: A little older and wiser and surrounded by friends, Shapiro finds herself perhaps no longer alone, but somehow feeling lonelier than ever as she tries to navigate a new minefield of social interactions.
It turns out that navigation calls for constant posturing and a whole lot of emotional labor. “Caught in a Lie” finds Shapiro “living someone else’s dream,” while “It’s Obvious” shows her trying to “kill time in between fake laughs.” On bonus track “Don’t Worry,” drummer Gretchen Grimm assures us “Don’t worry about me. I’m good at feeling what I want to feel.”
I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone is born of surges of cortisol and social anxiety, impostor syndrome and insomnia-ridden nights. On “This Time of Night,” Shapiro sings, “Fucked up, anxious/Full of fear/How, how did I get here.” And the warm, honeyed intro of “5am” gives way to a barrage of dark, jittery thoughts and self-flagellation: “I can’t afford not to make a mistake/It’s 5 a.m. and I’m full of hate/On a buzz, feel the waves in my brain/Saying things I shouldn’t say.” A shrill blare creeps in and eventually eclipses all other sound, as all-consuming as those anxious thoughts, finished off by a frayed, dissonant outro.
Chastity Belt alternates between unbearable emotion and detachment-as-defense mechanism. When all those feelings are too much to take, Shapiro blunts the pain with sleep (“Complain”), staring at her phone (“Something Else”), and isolation. “I would rather be alone than ask for what I want,” Shapiro confesses on “Used to Spend.” Several moments on the album make me think of Laura Stevenson’s “Jellyfish,” a self-chiding pop sparkler about being so gelatinous and spineless you quarantine yourself indoors rather than risk hurt.
Is it cool not to care? Maybe. But as Philip Seymour Hoffman says as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” With their fierce emotional honesty, Chastity Belt proves there is power in truth.