After Joyce Manor guitarist Neil Berthier’s father passed away from dementia in 2020, Berthier responded to a plea from friend and fellow musician Petey, packed his bags, and moved from Boston to Los Angeles. These conflicted emotions clouds At Some Point You Stop, Berthier’s latest album as PHONY (and third solo record following the dissolution of Donovan Wolfington, the band he once led). But in the throes of such heartache, Berthier lets his complex emotions guide his most expansive set of songs by him yet.
A quiet sense of despair defined Berthier’s first two records as PHONY, Songs You’ll Never Sing and Knock Yourself Out. The feeling lurks on the new album’s opening tracks “Christmas Eve Day” (featuring vocals from Ratboys’ Julia Steiner) and “The Middle.” But as the fingerpicked guitars and dreamy synths in the background of “Christmas Eve Day” transition into the harsh, reverberating drum machines of “The Middle,” this shadowy despair transforms into something much larger and louder as Berthier—drawing on the text of a letter he wrote as he processed his grief—pleads to his late father to “just meet me in the middle.” The track trades the snarky, emo revival-era punk of his previous work for heavier, slowcore-inspired indie rock, a sound he’d explored on Knock Yourself Out but revisits with greater purpose in the wake of tragedy.
Throughout the album, Berthier rifles through his own history and popular music at large. As he moves from icy, vaporous post-punk (“Animals”), resonant piano ballads (“Kaleidoscope,” which features Petey), and upbeat psychedelia à la Hüsker Dü (“Great White”), Berthier’s passionate performances connect the dots. The scrappy production on the album is both a compliment and a detriment to Berthier’s songwriting: While songs like the fast and fuzzy “Otherwise” benefit from a more hands-off approach, the bombastic chord progressions of another “Winter’s Warm” don’t hit quite as hard as it should in the context of such a cathartic record.
though At Some Point You Stop is Berthier’s most adventurous work yet, his attempts to cover so much new territory means its scale doesn’t always match his ambitions. Yet there’s a tenacity throughout the new album that wasn’t as present on the first two PHONY albums, especially Knock Yourself Out. While that record featured long stretches of ejection with the occasional moment of urgency, At Some Point You Stop flips that equation. Instead of letting the gravitational pull of grief and self-loathing drive him towards isolation, as Berthier hints at on “Wedding & Funeral Family,” he seeks love in the comfort of community. This shift in perspective, corresponding with the cross-country move and life-altering tragedy, makes his new album feel like the work of an artist in the process of finding their new form.