In These Moments of Uncertainty, Jack Larsen’s Mildew Feels More Enlightened Than Ever
Words by Alec Stern
Photos by Brittany McPherson
Just over five months ago, when the world looked a lot different than it does right now, Jack Larsen released an undercover masterpiece. Lyrical Lemonade hailed it as “one of the more memorable releases of the year” in their breakdown of the Top 50 Chicago projects of 2019. Spotify fawned over it, putting his face as the cover of their much sought-after Fresh Finds playlist, and included three of the album’s cuts in the playlist’s top 10 on release day. Since the release, he’s packed headlining shows in Chicago, LA, and New York, released an immensely vulnerable video for the single “Vanity”, and has continued to grow a diverse and devoted fanbase around the globe. The acclaim was well deserved and extremely encouraging for Jack’s first proper studio album, especially given how beautifully abstract so much of it sounded upon first listen. Mildew was an unexpected, art-y record, a “risk” for an artist who had proven himself so adept at a certain kind of pop songwriting across a handful of singles and a beloved EP. But as Jack intended when creating his full-length debut, with its extended instrumental sections and experiments in genre-bending, this was an album that would be made to stand the test of time; a fully cohesive experience that would reveal itself more fully with age. While so many of his contemporaries continually make flash-in-the-pan statements, chasing taillights of whoever and whatever is hottest at the moment, Jack was on a mission to forge a path entirely his own.
Mildew was written in a state of exile accentuated by a period of rapidly declining health, so it’s no wonder that in revisiting the album five months later, many of its themes ring truer to our collective state of being than ever before. The ideas Jack was wrestling with when writing it are things many of us have become forcibly faced with in recent weeks. Even the album cover feels eerily timely in a way no one could have predicted. As we all adjust to this new reality, for a length of time we still do not yet know, with an unease and uncertainty that seems to grow every day, now feels like a prescient time to look back on a piece of art that was created in its own state of claustrophobia and solitude, but has in many ways grown into its own beautiful statement on healing.
With a truly enviable gift for melody, production chops well beyond his years, and a raw, poetic youthfulness, the music Jack Larsen constructs, essentially all by himself, can feel boundless in its aims and execution. His debut EP Push- Ups, the project that built him the devoted, growing fanbase he has now, felt instinctual, raw, and highly indebted to naturalism and loose thoughts. In essence, it felt like memory, or at least the tint that colors our memories, which grows more saturated with time. Roughly two years later, it still sounds like those last days of a summer season’s wonder; of fighting to hold onto an innocence while it’s still attainable. Its six unapologetically sentimental songs never ventured far from the bittersweet feelings that come with the end of a life chapter, which in Jack’s case was graduating college. All of this led directly to Mildew, which still found Jack looking to the past in a sense, but the longing that colored his earlier work had been replaced with a bit more urgency and reflection.
The fall of 2018 found Jack out of the safety confines of college and responsible for his own livelihood for the first time. As the newest signee of Chicago indie label Closed Sessions, he committed to a full-time pursuit of music, believing the streaming revenue from Push-Ups would keep him afloat as he began dreaming of his debut album. Like many aspiring artists, he held a familiar romance toward a certain struggle, leading him to move into a 300 square foot studio apartment with his girlfriend “with the hope of blossoming into an artist instantly.” Yet the results were far from the flood of glamorous genius he envisioned. He instead found himself trapped, battling deep-rooted issues of identity, confidence and self-worth. There was a paralyzing fear of taking a step in any direction, for every move and every move not made held what for the first time were real consequences. At the time, he chalked it up to laziness and mental blocks, but eventually recognized it as a genuine fear of failure, pressure from self- imposed expectations, and a newfound accountability for those who had shown a belief in him.
Mildew, which was formally released on October 23rd 2019, is the album born from this restless period of transition into adulthood. It’s a cyclical experience, vividly relaying the anxieties of finding yourself without tangible growth to show for the uncontrollable passage of time; of “only growing up through photos.” The song “Vanity” alludes to a neck-and-neck race to find gravity with “only one more minute left” to get there. “Move On” dissects a personal war that’s raged for too long, and finally taking stock of its cost. And “Rigid” contains what feels like Jack’s biggest internal conflict as a young adult in the face of real accountability: “And I’m always fucking up when I don’t wanna.” But there are also signs of resistance- an intention to fight back against this stagnation. This is the biggest conceptual growth from his earlier work, which yearned for the simplicity and purity of being forever young. Rather than just looking to the past, he is now looking in all directions- inward, outward, backward, and forward- all in an effort to truly grow.
Taking inspiration from the visionary rock albums he loved most as a child, particularly the genius run of records Pink Floyd made in the 70’s, Mildew is full of vibrant instrumental passages, seamless song transitions, and epic runtimes (only one song dips below 4:30, with the longest going past seven minutes). But within this older, concept-focused framework, it’s the implementation of the more contemporary genre-less approach to songwriting and production that really makes Mildew something so refreshingly new and alive. The beats thrill in abstract forms, the hooks and auto-tuned harmonies are pure sugary pop bliss, and the use of pitched-up vocal processing, which he claims makes his voice a “more interesting instrument” than in its natural register, keeps you guessing whose perspective you are hearing throughout. Aside from Pink Floyd, I’ve heard the sound compared to experimental and grandiose bands like Slowdive, Radiohead, and Tame Impala, but one can also hear clear traces of artists like Animal Collective, Frank Ocean, and when it comes to his vocal deliveries, even Blink-182. The depth and diversity of his influences is one thing that makes Jack such an exciting and enigmatic artist: he is of a generation that’s had the entirety of recorded music at their fingertips since birth, and for his contribution to this world, Jack wants to use all of it. That’s how an up-tempo pop song about a hallucinogen trip can utilize a Max Richter sample of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons…and its seamless. As a self-taught producer with no credits to his name prior to this album, Jack’s most singular ability is transcribing these out-there, kaleidoscopic sounds from his head and combining them into something accessible, thrilling, and utterly beautiful.
As a writer, Jack has never shied away from revealing his self-proclaimed imperfections and anxieties, and Mildew dives deeper into his mental and emotional state than ever before. Throughout the album, themes of family, faith, and identity are examined from a personal vantage point, alongside perceptions of contemporary masculinity and the sins we cannot seem to resign. Drug use, both as a spiritual enhancer and method of detachment, play a big role in both Jack’s life and music, and the candor he uses when discussing his own dependencies is refreshing in its transparency and self-awareness. But the majority of the record deals with the idea of searching. This is an album about the fundamental changes needed to get to the places we hope to land and become the people we hope to be. There is a fight happening throughout the bulk of Mildew between a helplessness to the inevitability of things, and a longing for control, wherever it can be grasped. But even with weighty topics like these, it’s all sung with such wide-eyed wonder, and surrounded by such awe-inspiring lushness, you’d be forgiven for just marveling at the beauty of the whole thing, with its depth only casually making its way through. Whether you come for the stories or the sonics, the point is to get lost in the world Jack has created. And what a spectacular world it is.
So, what can Mildew do for us right now?
As mentioned, Mildew was largely inspired by the space it was created in. That first winter in Jack’s tiny city apartment, in the midst of a creative and emotional paralysis, mold and mildew began sprouting on the windows. Aside from constantly bleaching the apartment’s surfaces, the building’s property management group never attempted to fix the underlying cause of the problem, simply shrugging it off and suggesting it would go away on its own. Before long, Jack had developed a severe allergic reaction to the mold, becoming intensely ill with multiple respiratory infections over the many brutal months of merciless Chicago cold. It was, in a way, the perfect representation of where Jack had found himself in that moment. On the outset of adulthood, as he set out to immerse himself fully into a career as an artist, he inadvertently uncovered fears and doubts within himself that had never before reached the surface. Like the most fragile parts of ourselves that we never seek out, rebuild, and eventually heal, mildew is something only fully treated at its source. Otherwise, even if cleaned away, it will undoubtedly return, and almost always even stronger.
As an album, Mildew is about cleansing; about going deep into oneself to repair internal structures that have been left damp and damaged for too long. By the time it comes to a close, both Jack and the listener are reminded that growth is anything but linear; anything but a straight line. As much as we all hope for our journeys to end in some place different than we began, we often end up not all that far from where we started. But in the act of making this album, all on his own and exactly the way he wanted, Jack has straightened the arrow of his journey, and is a stronger man and artist for having done it.
I’ve heard it said recently that the worst thing that can happen as we eventually come out of this worldwide event, is if nothing changes at all. We are living through a global health crisis, the likes of which none of us have seen before and will possibly define much of our generation. As the remain glued to our TV sets and phones in the coming days, devouring news and trying to find ways to pass the time, now can be a period of intense doubt and insecurity. This is probably the most time spent with ourselves, without routine and distraction, that most of us have ever had. So, it begs the question: how will we come out the other side of all of this? What will we have learned about ourselves after spending this much time alone, cut off from the world outside? What will it mean for the ways we live our lives, for our relationships with others, for our relationship to the planet itself? This is a moment that has forced all of us to recalibrate, to make sacrifices, and to grow in ways we likely never imagined. The world around us has effectively stopped; maybe this is a good time to really consider who we are when we stop with it.
Mildew is the product of this kind of soul-searching, set to expansive, experimental and utterly dazzling musical soundscapes. The album’s eight songs are filled with empathy and raw humanity in all its complexities, doubts, insecurities, and small acts of bravery. It’s about growing up, searching for serenity, finding peace, making amends, and taking that next step up whatever mountain lies ahead of you. It’s a record I’ve found deep reflection in when listening alone with headphones, and euphoria when experienced with others, and have seen firsthand it’s power as a gateway toward a feeling of artistic and emotional freedom. It’s just inspiring. And there is maybe no better time than right now to play it loud and get utterly lost in all it has to offer.
Alec Stern is a writer, artist, and music supervisor currently living in Logan Square, Chicago.