On their 2015 EP Buyers, Austin’s Pollen RX (then a trio) skewered heavy topics like supply-side economics, marketing tactics, and institutional racism over upbeat garage pop. They’re no less political on Sunbelt Emptiness, their first full-length, but in the time since Buyers they’ve both added a member and become more sophisticated in tone. It was a wise move; while Buyers’ ‘shouty-dancey’ approach plays well with the converted, a pointed message packs greater punch when delivered in a way that invites close listening. Sunbelt Emptiness is dense and meticulous, balancing melodic hooks with slinkier passages so skillfully that it’s easy to get lost in the music before realizing you’re grooving to a song about AK-47s.
The album telegraphs some of its intentions in its cover art, a neon pastiche of a solitary eye peering out over an endless stretch of oil wells and telephone lines. It’s like a Lisa Frank illustration of Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby. In Pollen RX’s songs, the world is baked by the sun, frozen by air conditioning, patrolled by authorities, populated by pre-fab housing and, on opening track “Billboard Promises,” full of ads offering relief in the form of lotto winnings and sleeping pills. Sunbelt Emptiness is about what happens when a country exhausts its resources (“Sand in the Well.”) “Sunbelt emptiness/ American design,” Maud Morgan sings on the title track; according to PollenRX, this national vacuum is no accident. To put it another way: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
However dystopian the lyrics, the music remains bright, bouncy, and catchy. Propulsive pop number “Again” is about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion; on the aforementioned title track, co-vocalists Morgan and Ben Hirsch alternate between high-register yelping and gravelly growls while darkly juxtaposing the plasticity of reality TV with flickering images of environmental disasters. Consumerism, both its temptations and its disappointments, is another prime target: “Packaging” (which first appeared on Buyers) is a whip-smart critique of brand-as-narrative that bares its fangs in the chorus: “Here’s a story/ See if you can sell it/ Truth is nothing /packaging is everything.”
Despite their dissatisfaction with the world around them, Pollen RX is still able to find light in the cracks. “Paper plates on the kitchen floor/ but I adore you,” sings Morgan sweetly on “Apartment,” a song that’s heartbreaking in its elucidation of how small dreams can shrink, but still have meaning. By the time the album winds down with the dream-like “Control,” the band has found a kind of peace in their environment: “The sand and the sun and you all alone.”
For all their vitriol, Pollen RX have no illusions about their own complicity in the evils they attack. On Sunbelt Emptiness, they indict themselves in the sad and often violent processes that make the modern way of life possible as often as they do the listener. For a record about nothingness, Sunbelt Emptiness packs a punch.