Billboard signs. Horses. Old money homes. Military kids. Bank robberies. Train tickets. Good luck.
The town of Wallsocket appears to be the pinnacle of Midwestern suburbia — a small town with a bright history and an even brighter future; a beacon of safety and community in the turbulence of the modern world.
As with any suburban town, however, Wallsocket faces its little dramas; corrupt politicians, gossiping parents, loitering musicians, and whatever secrets lay underneath the surface. In its radiant normalcy, Wallsocket seems to be almost the perfect case study for this modern age of mundane Americana.
That, of course, would be if Wallsocket were a real place.
On April 21, 2023, April Harper Grey, a musician better known by the name “underscores,” recapped her latest “vacation” to the town of Wallsocket on social media. The town, which was soon revealed to exist in an ARG (Alternate Reality Game), unraveled into a maze of stories and interlocking secrets— culminating with the reveal of underscores’ upcoming album focusing on none other than Wallsocket’s core. “I tried to write from the perspective of the people I saw there […] and the circumstances that allowed them to exist,” she wrote in an Instagram post parallel to her eerily staged teaser video. “Everyone is such a character.”
The release of each single unlocked new characters and pieces of their storylines (noted by descriptions on each song’s Soundcloud uploads and music videos), while Wallsocket’s community websites buzzed with town updates throughout the leadup to the album. Fans even found themselves able to get a piece of the action; they could call the recently reopened Wallsocket Pizza, work through codes to unlock pages in the town’s government website, and even track Wallsocket’s recent bank robbery for a chance at getting some cash of their own.
Underscores created a puzzle of a storyline for fans to solve, one that only continued with the album’s full release.
In a similar vein to its conceptual storyline and premise, the soundscape of “Wallsocket” matches its more experimental themes. underscores twists listeners through the town in a genre self-described as “new prog pop” (which seems to draw inspiration from midwest emo, hyperpop, and plunderphonics, among other styles), spinning together electronic grunge, dark guitar riffs, bright vocal work, and video game-esque sound effects into one cohesive body. “Wallsocket” is far from one-size-fits-all stylistically, and offers the angst of the modern age in a wide range of applications for audiences to take in.
Parallel to its shifting genres, underscores shifts fluidly between characters and their intertwined story arcs throughout “Wallsocket.” Following its opening gloaty heist tale of “Cops and robbers” (lead by none other than former Columbia bank employee Joshua M. Domingo), Grey’s storytelling shifts its perspective to the quote-on-quote “arms, body, legs, flesh, skin, bone, sinew” of the album– the “Girls like us” of “Wallsocket.”
Though static in their existence in an imaginary town, Wallsocket’s locals find themselves dissecting the dauntingly resonant transition to adulthood in song after song. The album runs rawly through stories of illness, parasociality, financial hypocrisy, and the confusion of losing friends and family to a world far bigger than yourself — all through a riveting hour-long LP.
Many of the tracks are playfully cynical. One in particular being “Johnny Johnny Johnny,” an adaptation of the children’s song to recap a character S*nny’s run-in with grooming and sexual abuse using rock chords and pep-rally repeats. Similarly, “You don’t even know who I am”’ layers samples of cartoonish inspirational quotes while character Mara eerily confesses to stalking S*nny. Piecing it all together, the recurring tag of “Good luck!” placed delicately at the forefront of almost every album track works to amplify this feeling.
While maintaining a sense of playfulness, underscores doesn’t shy away from the emotional rawness of these experiences. S*nny asks if the “colorful plastic / That [God] puts at the end of [his] line” is alive as she contemplates her recent diagnosis with a no-name disease in “Duhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” and character Old money bitch finds herself confessing to her own internal violence and “getting the hype” of shooting as she apprehensively nudges a close friend off to war.
The residents are portrayed to live in an uncanny valley of human existence, making the resonance of their stories often unsettling. In their mannerisms, they’re just like us: They take personality quizzes, struggle with religious and queer identity, and often fall into wavering states of obsession, grief, and apathy. In a town whose mundane legacy spans far beyond their own stories, the girls’ existence and eventual break from this mediocrity only means as much as the audience is willing to piece together and underscores urges her listeners to do exactly that.
“Good luck final girl,” the album’s closing track, sings a campfire-esque song of coming of age in which “The girls realize that navigating adulthood is an individual responsibility.” Mara works through her issues of obsession and vanity, S*nny finds self-acceptance as she finally leaves town, and Old money bitch begins to shed through layers of numbness unbroken in years. In an album which makes excellent usage of complex compositions and production techniques, “Wallsocket” ends on a note of well-needed sonic emptiness. The tonal shift highlights the isolation that comes with growing up and leaving behind the stories and people you’ve known in the past.
After welcoming listeners to the “new age of the future” in her debut album “fishmonger,” Grey has proved herself to symbolize everything this era of music should be. Her work is explorative, complex, and offers a new perspective on concept albums and fan interaction rarely seen from artists in this day in age.
Through the artistry in her music and marketing, underscores proves that we may not be as alone in our worlds as we think we are.