The teenage years of the 21st century. That is an interesting way to think of the last 7 years or so of this new century, imagining it as a anxious, self-entitled teenager. It is a pretty apt comparison, as we have seen a rise in social unrest, ultranationalism, and racism. This comparison is exactly what singer/songwriter Micah Schnabel invites us to make with his fantastic 2019 album, The Teenage Years of the 21st Century.
I first came across Micah and his music in my later years of college (around 2008) from his band Two Cow Garage, which helped me realize that I loved country-tinged rock and roll. I immediately gravitated towards his raspy, unpolished vocal style and the punk rock intensity of the music. As I have followed Micah and his music over the past 12 years, between solo albums and Two Cow Garage records, I have watched a change in the focus of his music. No longer is he singing about things that he should have done as opposed to chasing down music, or lamenting unrequited love. Instead, his focus has moved towards social commentary, looking at the current state of the United States, examining poverty in rural towns and the hardships of life without access to basic resources. This shift is the mark of an artist who has accepted their place in the world, and realized that they can make a difference through their work. One of his main strengths as a songwriter has always been his sincerity and honesty. He has truly lived what he sings about, growing up in a small town in Ohio and spending the better part of his life traveling around the country playing music. His work is not that of an outsider looking in and preaching about things he only vaguely understands.
It was on Micah’s previous solo album, Your New Norman Rockwell (2017), that his shift in focus was first on full display. On it, Micah largely replaced his characteristic rasp with a spoken word vocal style, reminiscent of Craig Finn on the earlier Hold Steady albums. This made it easier to focus on the words and the message he was sending. On The Teenage Years of the 21st Century, Micah is back to his more familiar singing voice, but his message of compassion towards those struggling through these chaotic times is still present just as strongly. If anything, things have only gotten more dire since 2017’s Your New Norman Rockwell. The onset of a crippling pandemic has changed virtually every aspect of our lives, and further exposed the systemic inequities that permeate everything from healthcare to education.
On the song “Gentle Always”, Micah sings about how people are becoming more accepting of others, whether it be pertaining to their race or their sexuality. Older generations might not be keen on accepting this, but that is the direction the world is heading. “How to Ride a Bike” is an upbeat and jangly guitar number about buying a bike, which he uses to reflect on how expensive life can be and how furthering your education is often prohibitively expensive. And while life is costly, he rightly adds that “being dead is such a lousy alternative.” Another highlight is “Emergency Room” with its rocking intensity that echoes Two Cow Garage. In it, Micah is singing about the healthcare system of the United States, where many people simply cannot afford the treatments that they need to survive: “so maybe if we got jobs that paid, maybe they would let you stay. They could give you the best drugs and we’d be able to pay.”
“Remain Silent” is a plea for our society to let go of hatred, and notice how we are not so different from one another. It is packed with astute observations about our society, noting that many blame their own failures on others, on people with different color skin, which only leads to hatred. All of his observations are just as relevant today as they were when the album was released a year ago. 2020 has been a very challenging year, with COVID-19, rising tensions over police brutality, and the presidential election. Wearing a mask and listening to science has somehow become a political act, and so has asking for more accountability from our Police forces. The line: “when did being a decent human being become political” still hits really hard.
“Memory Currency” finds Micah reflecting on distinct moments of his life as a touring musician, calling back some stories that I remember hearing about at Two Cow Garage shows, like Micah spending his 22nd birthday in the hospital as bassist Shane Sweeney was getting stitches. The song posits that it is the memories and the human connections that you make in life that are the most valuable: “now these memories, they are my only currency. I am not disappointed, but I’m certainly not proud. I am alive and I will never again be as young as I am right now.” None of us are getting any younger, but we can be thankful for what we do have and make the most of whatever time we have left.
Like Micah, I have gone through a similar shift in priorities over the last 10 years. When I discovered Micah’s music, I was just finishing college and anxious about where my life was heading. Since then, I have met lots of different people from many walks of life and I have become much more aware of social issues, realizing my place of privilege as a white male from a middle class family. Micah’s music has continually informed me and has been with me these past 10+ years as I have matured as a person. While Micah’s music chronicles some pretty dark aspects of these times, it always does so with a message of hope and empathy, making the listening experience anything but dour. I look forward to hearing more of Micah’s sharp insights through his music, and implore anyone reading this to do the same.
Make sure to support Micah by buying his music here.