Sarah Tudzin doesn’t give listeners a thesis to pour over in search of deep meanings and other easter eggs. She’s always delivered her messages straight ahead sans mystery, and her latest release pushes that M.O. to new heights. FREE I.H: This Is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For, the new record from Tudzin’s illuminati hotties, is twenty-one minutes of nonstop indie-power-pop-punk-latin-noise-you-name-it, followed by another two of welcome slowdown and reflection. It is everything one could possibly hope to fit into such a tight package. It is brazenly pissed off and unafraid to speak its mind, whatever that may entail. It is absolutely wonderful.
At its core, FREE I.H. is an album about not wanting to make an album. After record label Tiny Engines went dark in late 2019 following accusations from several of its artists of delayed payments and abuses of power, Tudzin found herself unable to escape her contract, but unwilling to submit her upcoming second album to the label in order to fulfill her end of the deal. FREE I.H., as the title implies, was born out of that frustration and the desire to no longer be tethered to Tiny Engines’ rapidly sinking ship.
The story of how this record came to be, interesting as it is, has been told many times (listen to Dan Ozzi’s interview with Tudzin on his REPLY ALT podcast for more on that). However, great art generally deserves to be appreciated independently of the unfortunate circumstances that led to its creation. FREE I.H., in spite of its rushed development and rough-on-the-ears palette of sounds, is most certainly great art.
Let’s start from the top. Lead single and album opener “will i get cancelled if i write a song called, ‘if you were a man you’d be so cancelled’” bombards listeners with a brutal chromatic riff under shouted lyrics about a hookup that turned into a morning Denny’s run, followed by a 3-month gaslighting disaster of a relationship, all chronicled in a crisp minute-fifteen. This track’s combination of no-holds-barred lyrics and heavy front-and-center riffage set the tone for most of the album to come, but it’s Tudzin’s vocal delivery that really stands out and will come to be the primary constant throughout this sonic whirlwind. In contrast to her more tame output on 2018’s indie pop-inspired debut, Kiss Yr Frenemies, Tudzin takes on a high-pitched shout across FREE I.H., always seemingly on the brink of a scream but never spilling over. She sounds more annoyed than angry, almost as if she’s glad this thing happened so that she could write a song about it.
After “will i get cancelled” comes the first of three “free” songs, each of which takes a strikingly distinct tone from the other two. “free ppls” continues in similar fashion to the track before it, featuring an uptempo punk riff and more of the same “I know something you don’t” vocal delivery. In this case, the description is apt, as Tudzin, preaching about “sheeples…marching blind to the rapture,” lays out a statement on the hive mind-esque partisanship present in current politics.
Second in the “free” cycle is “free dumb,” a mellow affair that serves as Tudzin’s quarantine anthem. In just six efficient lines, she tackles the absurdity of “business as usual” in the face of the dumpster fire that is the world and the continued disregard for music and the arts in the workforce and in day-to-day life. Although its approach is different, both lyrically and sonically, “free dumb” hits on similar themes to those present in “free ppls,” namely the herding of the masses into certain belief systems, regardless of how it affects their personal freedoms.
Finally, “free4all” closes the loop with a chiptune noise track that could have come straight out of the factory level of an early-90s GameBoy game. I’m not going to pretend to know what deep meaning Tudzin ascribes to this piece, but the industrial sounds, constant, methodical rhythm, and overall aura of despair hint at a bleak future to come if the issues described on the first two “free” songs are allowed to carry on.
This review would be incomplete without a mention of “content//bedtime,” AKA the catchiest song I’ve heard in a long time. After a minute-long ambient intro, the song launches into one of several irresistible refrains that threaten to become annoying just enough to worm their way solidly into the listener’s ears, never to leave. None of these hooks would be out of place on a Parquet Courts track, yet once again Tudzin’s unique delivery, this time aided by some background gang vocals, gives them a life of their own.
I won’t spoil the whole album, but be sure to watch out for standouts “melatonezone” and “b yr own b,” as well as the beautiful tone-shifting closer, “reasons 2 live.” It may have come about by accident and clock in at only twenty-three minutes, but FREE I.H. has my vote for album of the summer. It is all at once topical, stylistically diverse, loud, soft, efficient, and just so damn fun. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go pour myself a bowl of illuminati hot-o’s and listen through the album three more times.