'Fine Forever' establishes indie pop band Varsity’s talent for storytelling

by Sathvika Korandla | 6/1/20 3:00am

Varsity, a five-person indie pop band from Chicago, has solidified its place in the genre of indie pop with its new album, “Fine Forever.” Composed of lead singer Stef Smith, guitarists Dylan Weschler and Pat Stanton, bassist Paul Stolz and drummer Jake Stolz, Varsity released “Fine Forever” on May 29 through independent record label Run For Cover Records. While the album’s self-aware lyrics touch on themes such as loneliness and heartbreak, the cheerful instrumentals infuse their songs with an optimistic quality. In “Fine Forever,” Varsity layers complex anecdotes with upbeat indie-pop sounds to stress a message of positivity amid the difficulties of life.

With 10 songs, “Fine Forever” wastes no time. Varsity’s sound borrows from early 2000s indie rock, which it polishes with present-day pop sounds. Their sound is relaxing yet textured and manages to accommodate an array of themes. The album’s lyrics read like an anthology of lessons in being human, each song offering a tale sung from the perspective of a different protagonist.

Opening the album is “Runaway,” a song about a lost love. As a flashy guitar and bass open the song, Smith wonders, “Idols in the air/Vanish, then they disappear/How can I worship properly?” About a minute and a half into the song, an unexpected saxophone solo replaces the vocals, and the song itself seems to run away from the protagonist’s reality. Unpredictable moments like this contribute to the song’s message of running away to seek happiness for yourself. “Runaway” is the perfect album opener, as it introduces the listener to Varsity’s engaging lyrics and uplifting sound, all while sharing a tale of unhealthy love.

Following “Runaway” is the title track “Fine Forever,” which continues the message that time heals all. In the first two verses, Smith declares, “I got it all figured out again/And I won't waste it, waste it” and “And I won't let it slip away again/I'm gonna take it, take it.” Varsity cleverly mirrors this uplifting message with their background music through a key shift about two minutes into the song. “Fine Forever” is one of the more effervescent tracks on the album, and Smith’s straightforward songwriting shines on this optimistic track. She paints difficult experiences as opportunities for growth, singing “It's not exactly what you thought/It's gonna take a little.”

On the simultaneously cheerful and melancholy “Shaking Hands,” Varsity pairs its positive indie pop sound with the loneliness that comes with being excluded. While carefree music glimmers in the background, Smith describes a seemingly perfect neighborhood in the lyrics, “They're mowing lawns, they're makin' beds/They're getting hitched, they're shaking hands.” However, she demolishes this idyllic imagery with her character’s reality: “I walk around this sleepy old town/And I ain't got much to do/I wonder and I wonder if I'm ever going under.” The moment Smith breaks the initial illusion comes as a refreshing surprise, and it is Varsity’s willingness to be honest in their songs that allows their work to reach their listeners.

“Fine Forever” takes a turn at this point, as the next song “Wrecking Line” tells a story of someone breaking off an unhealthy relationship. Smith taunts her character’s lover in the lyrics, “Come and say bye to me/As I'm tearing up the street/To get out from your wrecking line.” Her sweet, melodic singing gives an illusion of a love song, imploring listeners to pay careful attention to the lyrics. Upon observing closely, listeners realize that Smith’s lyrics contradict the saccharine sound, and that this is not a love song at all. She scorns her past lover, especially in the last lyrics of the song, “You know I have my picture of you/You did what you do, you did what you do.” The character in the song has moved on, and Varsity suggests that listeners also move on from unhealthy relationships.

The seven-minute track “The Memphis Group” stands out on this album, as it sees Varsity using a historical concept as inspiration for an experimental sound. Named after the Italian design and architecture group that popularized postmodern designs in the 1980s, the track explores the rise and fall of a relationship. In addition to combining blunt lyrics and a smooth sound, Varsity experiments with length and the idea of time on this track. The song’s length cleverly contrasts the content of the lyrics, which describe a short fling that comes to an end too soon. Smith’s lyrics also juxtapose images of enjoyment with the inevitability of time, particularly in the lines “Runnin’ down the clock/Lap of luxury,” and “Fine art and great chairs/You know we’re unprepared.” Meanwhile, intertwined layers of guitar and bass remind listeners that love is complex and they cannot control every aspect of it.

While Varsity’s artistry shines on “The Memphis Group,” it falters on “Surfin’ Milwaukee.” As an instrumental-only track, it lacks the ability to connect with listeners through authentic lyrics. The song creates an awkward lapse in vocals and pauses the progression of the album. On an album as short as “Fine Forever,” every song should be significant, but “Surfin’ Milwaukee” takes up space that could have been utilized by another track or simply cut out.

Varsity also dives into the pain caused by love and relationships on “What’s Yours Is Mine.” The protagonist of this song is still in love with their partner, and it hurts to leave the relationship. Through the lyrics, “Gonna take some time/I'm not trying to forgive/But I can't/Forget about it,” Smith shares the character’s resolve to heal from a painful breakup. Although the lyrics depict distress, Varsity accompanies them with bubbly guitar melodies that brighten the song. The band’s willingness to revitalize an otherwise mournful story through optimistic sounds transforms the meaning of the song. Rather than leaving them to simply pity the heartbroken character’s struggles, listeners are motivated to approach unfortunate moments in their lives with a positive outlook.

The closing track of the album, “Sicko World,” is an interesting choice for a closing track, as it touches on loneliness and inequality in the world, rather than leaving listeners with a positive takeaway like the other songs on the album. With lyrics such as “When they gonna find a cure/For a dirty mind, for the impure?” and “They'd lock me away/I'm just another headcase,” Varsity portrays a world in which the protagonist doesn’t belong. Smith also sings, “It's a sicko world/We're all living on,” suggesting that it is society’s fault for failing to accept all people. Unlike other songs on the album, the background music for “Sicko World” is not explicitly optimistic. Instead of pairing this song with a cheerful background, Varsity overlays the lyrics on a bass-driven beat which simply moves the song forward. This creates the sense that one should carry on with life even when faced with adversity in the hope of attaining prosperity.

On “Fine Forever,” Varsity narrates inspiring stories that guide listeners in finding happiness in dark moments, creating its most emotionally articulate album yet. Varsity reminds listeners that even though the world is unfair, we must aim to bring positivity into our lives and make the best of our strange world. As the characters in each song navigate their painful pasts and negative experiences, they find solace in the likelihood that the future will be better. These characters have the chance to be fine forever, and so do Varsity’s listeners.