An Essay on Tyson Motsenbocker’s ‘Milk Teeth’

by Benjamin Daniel

“The things we love will take a piece of us away.”

So, Tyson Motsenbocker laments in the final moments of his third LP Milk Teeth. I’ve been hearing Tyson’s name for the last few years since his well-received debut Letters to Lost Loves in 2016. Throughout his career, he has enjoyed a long tenure on Tooth & Nail Records and support for bands as big as Switchfoot (of whom Jon Foreman is a good friend). But for all the times I’ve heard the name Tyson Motsenbocker and engaged with his music, I’ve found it inexplicably hard to get into.  

So, it is with zero bias that I say that Milk Teeth boasts some of the most compelling songwriting and beautiful indie rock landscapes I’ve heard in a while.

The album title, which is another term for baby teeth, is all about reckoning with the loss of that which we loved while celebrating its memory. The narrative of the record is overtly sorrowful and covertly celebratory—a world-weary work of art saturated with the wisdom of someone who has experienced a lot of life and is grateful for it if a bit beaten down.The opener, descriptively titled “Oh, No (Regarding Panic Attacks, 2016-2020),” simmers with quiet anxiety as Tyson whispers out world-weary observations. Drunken police officers, robberies, and environmental dread are just a few of the subjects that drive Tyson’s fear until the subdued opener suddenly bursts into manic energy in its final minute. It’s as relevant as any song released in 2022, but the song also serves as a sort of vantage point from which the rest of the album narrative is viewed as Tyson reminisces on past memories—the heartaches, the mistakes, and the joys—from a place of present pain.

The aforementioned joy is brought to the forefront on the following song, “Wendy Darling,” which transitions the album into more upbeat territory and boasts one of the best vocal/lyrical hooks I’ve heard in a long time:

Down the street to go to Max’s party
Drive like Magnum’s Ferrari
Throwing up your mom’s locked Bacardi
The whole school thought the vodka had gone bad

The song leans into infectious joy (with hints of melancholy) as Tyson reminisces on a girl. The song is a love song of sorts, but mostly serves as an ode to good (if troubled) times. It’s a masterful indie pop song that carries a bit of the heartland sound of Bruce Springsteen or The Killers, while not being disjointed from the ambience the rest of the album carries. The song ends with some impeccably placed brass and the line, “The old men say the decades don’t pass slow,” cluing the listening into the album’s ongoing theme of transience. For every happy moment, there is a hidden understanding that these moments will not last forever.

“Carlo Rossi (Love in the Face of Great Danger)” is perhaps the album’s most straightforward cut, but boasts another great pop hook and some of the album’s best guitar work. It’s simply a great love song, but Tyson’s detailed storytelling (such as his description of the titular wine) keep the song consistent with the record’s more storytelling-driven approach. The softer, ambient “Give Up” veers into weightier territory musically and lyrically, serving as a moving tribute to somebody who stuck with Tyson in his darkest moments. His vocal delivery in the verses serves as a highlight here, almost veering on talking at times. It also has another memorable guitar hook bridging the first chorus and second verse that wouldn’t sound out of place on a From Indian Lakes record. It’s these little touches along with the pitch-perfect production that make the music on Milk Teeth so consistently engaging. The song ends with some old family recordings that end up having some narrative payoff in the record’s closing tracks.

“Hide From the World” is sure to be a fan-favorite, veering into jazzier territory. The nostalgia is even stronger with this one, as Tyson namedrops everything from the Harry Potter tent to Snoopy’s doghouse to Oscar the Grouch’s trashcan. Where this song goes deeper than a happy nostalgia-trip is how each of these childhood locales is a vehicle for deeper anxiety. While the previous three songs largely stay in the positive and inspirational, this song is more closely related to the disquiet of the opener, but with a fun and cute veneer. It’s almost cloying on first listen, before becoming disarming and unsettling on subsequent listens.

This is one of the great strengths of the record. While it already checked my personal boxes on a stylistic level from the first listen, one could be forgiven for finding it almost unremarkable at first. It’s one of those that gives on repeat listens, as the storytelling and musical flourishes begin to really unfold the more time is spent with it. It’s as much like a great book or a great film as it is a great album. It sticks with you the more you sit with it.

This is as clear as ever on the album centerpiece, “UC Santa Cruz,” an exceptional piece of narrative-driven indie rock that opens with some of my favorite lyrics of the year:

Driving to see me
Skin stuck to the bench seat
Wearing the new shoes you bought from UC Santa Cruz
Climbing the oak tree
Misplacing some clothing
While the neighbor’s middle son with binoculars on
Is watching a rerun movie

It’s these little touches—the saying so much with so little—that make Tyson’s writing so engaging. These opening lyrics are followed by one of the best guitar lines I’ve heard in a while and the song as a whole features some of his dreamiest melodies to date. The chord change in the chorus and the inclusion of a female vocalist in the final chorus also makes it one of the most dynamic songs here musically. There are subtle choices Tyson makes in this song that aren’t what you expect, but they’re pitch-perfect in their execution. It sounds like something The Beach Boys would have come up with at their peak creativity, but with a decidedly modern edge more akin to Death Cab for Cutie (who might be the best reference point for the album’s sound as a whole).

The album’s catchiest track, “Make Me Feel It, Come On,” arrives next. The opening interplay between brass and guitar is a brilliant touch, but the whole song is a highlight unto itself, boasting a chorus that’s somehow just as earwormy as “Wendy Darling” is. Tyson’s lower register dominates the whole song to terrific effect. Starflyer 59 is a good comparison here. It almost sounds like what would happen if Jason Martin decided to write a full-fledged pop song. “All the Old Bars (Whose Names Have Changed)” is the sleeper song on the record. On first listen, it gave the least impression, but subsequent listens prove the song to be one of the most layered and dynamic (there’s that word again) on the record. That Death Cab/Beach Boys hybrid comparison comes to mind again, but it’s for lack of a better reference. There’s a specific folk-indie rock sound here that I can’t entirely put my finger on. But the music is spellbinding, especially in the final 30 seconds where the instrumentation comes unglued.

Lyrically, the longing and nostalgia of “All the Old Bars” serves as a thematic bridge into the final three tracks, “North Shore Party,” “Buyer Confidence,” and “Time is a One Way Mirror”. And while the rest of the album is not short on highlights (particularly “Wendy Darling” and “UC Santa Cruz”), I can’t think of an album in recent memory that has ended with the hat trick that Milk Teeth ends on. Each song is a highlight unto itself, with the next one somehow topping the song before it.

“North Shore Party” is the final track on the record that could be considered upbeat before the album takes a weightier turn more akin to the opener. While the songs between the opener and this point largely serve as nostalgic vignettes celebrating former times, it’s here where things start to fall apart (in a good way) thematically. Musically, the song serves as a slightly poppier answer to Bon Iver’s album Bon Iver, Bon Iver, complete with that brass intro and a nice “mmm” delivery in the chorus that would make Justin Vernon proud. It carries a proper sense of urgency with it, matched by the lyrics:

Never give it up
Till it’s dispossessed
And a first defeat
Is an acquiesce
But here you are
Talking former glory
Nothing less dignified
Than aging poorly

These lyrics communicate the album’s ongoing theme of not letting go of flights of fantasy when one should and what happens when holding on starts to look pitiful. The following lyrics are just as biting:

When I think of you
Well, you look like children
Ten or twenty-five
Or a hundred million
Set to change the world
To walk upon it
Or to sit alone
With the best behind them

In the “old days,” there was a lot laid on our generation about how we were going to change the world. But just as the preacher in Ecclesiastes communicates to us, time has proven this to be a vanity. Dreams become memories instead of reality. When we dreamed, we thought the best times were ahead, but the dreams themselves turned out to be the good times. While this is a sad thought, the chorus of the song communicates the necessity in doing things differently as we go forward, giving some wisdom that serves as a proper preamble to the final two songs.

The penultimate track, “Buyer Confidence,” captures the idea of transience more explicitly than any other song on the record. This is appropriate as it also serves as the most subdued and weary track on the album, as all of the flourishes are stripped back for a soft lament about disappointment. The opening verse takes a compelling story about Tyson’s uncle who would barefoot water ski to Tyson’s amazement as a child. On one occasion, Tyson tries to do the same, but is unable to match it. His uncle then moves away, leaving his boat behind as a memory of both former glory and present failure. That first verse is a gripping short story on its own that could make Flannery O’Connor proud and builds perfectly into what might be the album’s thesis statement:

I’d like to think it’s not too much to ask
That we all give a little, and we all get a little back
But I’d like a word with the man who sold me this
That I bought in for a future with declining buyer confidence

Don’t let me down easy
Just let me down
These words speak not only to individual disappointment, but the collective sadness of a disenfranchised generation who was promised more than a fallen world could ever give us. But while “Buyer Confidence” is the saddest song on a record full of melancholy, it’s also the kind of sad that forces one to see the world for how it is so that we can reach beyond it. It reminds me of a wearier version of the “Let me down” refrain in Switchfoot’s song “The Beautiful Letdown”. How can we find our way back to our Maker if our hearts are not willing to part with the make believe? Those days of innocence are worth celebrating, but they aren’t worth dying for.

The album closes with its best track, and possibly my favorite song of the year, “Time is a One Way Mirror”. Starting with a soft ambience and piano over hushed vocals before making a pivot into post-rock territory, the build of this song calls to mind how “I Know the End” perfectly closed Phoebe Bridgers’ excellent album Punisher, except with a little less catharsis. This is a song where all the themes on the record find their culmination as all of the nostalgia and joys and disappointments come to a head. The snapshots of memories, specific places, and cultural references all find their apex here. It’s the sound of a man at the end of his journey looking back through the door one last time before closing it, told through stunning narrative detail:

It stabbed me and twisted and he said from behind
“I’ve got bone screws in places only TSA finds”
And he tore at his letterman, cursing the world
That has good things, and bad things, and good things we held too long

That last piece (“good things we held too long”) holds the key to understanding Milk Teeth as a whole and its simultaneous love of memory while cautioning against idolizing the past. As baby teeth fall out to make room for new ones, so pieces of our past must be lost to make room for our future.

I think of those I love who no longer occupy a daily presence in my life since I moved out West. Whether it be my mom who passed at the beginning of this year, the rest of my family back East, or some of my closest friends scattered across the country, there are so many things that God has given and taken away that I’m tempted to helplessly reach for. It’s the natural struggle of having experienced great blessing and great difficulty at once. As my own life settles into a period of peacetime and mundanity, I find myself longing for the pains of war to feel the comfort of a brother (“past strapped ammunition, a good man is hard to find”—speaking of Flannery O’Connor) or the ignorance of childhood to feel its bliss (“when your dad stumbled in slurring words, spilling gin on my LEGOS, we sang along”).

The final lyrics contend one final time with the guilt that comes with leaving what you loved behind. They also hold specific resonance for this reviewer who has made the woeful flight back from ATL to LAX more times than he can count:

I stared at my hands all the way from the airport
Like Benedict Arnold was living inside
Maybe he does
And maybe I am
I wanna go back and just shout through the void to change course
But there’s no one there that can hear it
Cause time is a one-way mirror

The final build—which never gets as big as one might hope but gets just as big as it needs to—carries the same sound of the aforementioned Bon Iver album, particularly the opening song “Perth”. It’s a sudden pivot into gorgeous post-rock territory that sounds devastating and healing at once—the soundtrack to something falling apart for the explicit purpose that something else grows. Milk teeth to permanent teeth. Deconstruction of a decaying house for the rebuilding of a stronger one.

But refreshingly, this is not a traditional “deconstruction” album, as Tyson doesn’t take to task specific ideas and belief systems. There is nothing here about church disillusion or religious turmoil that would either offend or liberate. This is not Twitter debate fodder. The deconstruction here is a universal one: the loss of childhood and the leaving behind old dreams for new realities. It’s a rare album for these times that has so much to say but nothing to argue about. It’s also part of the reason the album is likely to be a grower for many, as it makes its statement with an ellipses rather than an exclamation point. But the ellipses grows louder and more profound with each listen.

As for me, as I alluded to at the beginning of this review, Milk Teeth is one of the most impactful records I’ve heard in the last few years. As a singer-songwriter myself, Tyson raises the bar for me when it comes to narrative-driven storytelling and rich musicality. As a human, his stories speak to both the micro-struggles of my own life and the macro-struggles of this world in a way that couldn’t be timelier. If you let the album sit long enough, you may find something—a lyric, a musical flourish, a melody—to creep its way into your heart until one by one you can’t count the number of things that move you. If we were in a perfect world, it’s a record that would creep into the indie music subconscious every bit as much as the aforementioned Bon Iver and Phoebe Bridgers records have. It’s that good.

But alas, we are not in a perfect world or the stories of transience that Tyson tells here wouldn’t exist. So, if Milk Teeth doesn’t catch on as it should, I’ll be content to let it nestle in my own soul and do my part to urge everybody to listen to what is (thus far) one of the best albums of the decade.

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