Following his 2019 EP, Sobville (Episode I), Ian Johnson wanted to write Episode II and III─ but when he stepped back, he soon realized it felt more like an album. Nonfiction, a volatile pop/punk elixir, produced by John Feldmann, emerged from deep reveries, as he began taking stock of his life and finding himself needing to change.
“I was just listening to it today in its album form─and I was definitely trying to figure some things out on it. I would say I’ve definitely figured more things out about myself in my life and where I want to go in my career over the last year,” Johnson, known professionally as Arrested Youth, tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “But still, when I listened to this, there’s still a lot of things that are on this record from a year ago that are really relevant to things I’m trying to figure out now. There’s just a lot of deep underlying life questions and quests in this album that, I think, will probably be irrelevant when I listen to this 10 years later.”
From shattering his own “Ego” to “Leave the Casket Open,” an immense soul-crusher about a middle school classmate’s suicide, the record captures growing into and feeling comfortable in adulthood, as well as his search for “the things that are probably going to be a lifelong process. I decided to be honest with what this is, and at the end of the day, it was a batch of 15 honestly-written songs about where I was at in my life at the time and what I was going through, you know. It wasn’t fake; it was real.”
The album is split down the middle. The first half erupts in bright colors, while the second leans into life’s more devastating shades, etching his own complex duality as a human being into stone. Placed early on in the album arc, “Paul McCartney” certainly tempts both emotional lines, using “Let It Be” as a reference point to discuss how depression is most artists’ only point of conversation / Which leads to negativity and personal frustration, he sings over reedy acoustic guitar.
“I don’t want to say every─but so many artists are obviously writing about this newfound emotional outlet of depression and heavy thinking. It’s hard to know where that’s all coming from. It is part of the digital age, and part of it is the isolating time we spent alone that has come through Covid,” he explains. “But I’d also say, it was trending that way before Covid to be completely honest. Especially in my genre of alternative music, that is really what most songs are written about these days. And I get it─and it’s great─because kids can relate to it and they can feel it. But to me a big goal for a song like ‘Paul McCartney,’ and a lot of songs on this album, was yeah, we’re all experiencing this, but doesn’t it become even more negative? And doesn’t there have to be some new people or a few songs to say, ‘Hey, there’s a really good side to life, as well, and we can’t just live in the negative. This isn’t preachy; that’s what I have to tell myself everyday, too.
“Life is not one-dimensional. There are many sides. There is bad, but there’s also good. There’s pain, but there’s also joy,” he adds. “It’s a really fine line. It’s dangerous to answer for other people, but what I do believe in myself and from my own experience is that maybe a lot of artists… it’s not as much maybe about selling a false idea or false emotion that they’re feeling… but it’s more about the trend and appealing to what the listener knows or is currently struggling with and looking for.”
With “My Friend,” Johnson begins his descent into the album’s darker underbelly, a gripping tale about those friendships that slip through your fingertips. I don’t wanna be another person you resent / I hope when this is over, we’re both happy in the end, he sings, his voice shrouded in a fog.
“I’m not an artist who really writes songs about love or [romantic] relationships. That’s just not something I’ve really done. I try to stay away from that. I think there’s enough people doing that,” he reflects. “So, my question for myself was: how do I write a song that still talks about relationships but outside of the intimate world? Through my experiences with my last three years in music, I’ve had some bandmates that have come and gone. I’ve had some great producers that have come and gone. I’ve had some short term relationships with women that have come and gone, and I’ve had some relationships that are… strained that I’m afraid could come and go.”
Nonfiction is emotionally-grueling, further evidenced with the penultimate track “Parallel Lines,” on which he unravels himself from his own suffocating self regrets. “I call myself at the end of the day, not physically, but maybe mentally. I can be quite neurotic in the sense that I’m pretty hard on myself with things I do, the things I say, the choices I make,” he says. “So, the question in the song and the statement I was just trying to make is like, ‘Do we really have to have this much regret in ourselves and the things we do? Am I a bad guy? Am I doing things wrong?’”
“For the most part, I would say no.”
We don’t have to accept this level of self regret / Trying to self reflect / Pent up in my cage, I can waste away these days, he snarls. Such a confrontational line, perhaps, cuts to “the root of it,” as he puts it. “We don’t have to accept this level of living in our heads and living against ourselves. There is such an internal battle inside the human psyche. We can face the struggle, face death, face whatever it might be and say, ‘This may be the struggle in front of me, but it’s not going to determine my fate. It’s not going to put me into fear. I’m gonna keep going and face it.’”
“I used to pride myself in not reflecting too deeply on the past. It used to be one of my great qualities─that I thought was a great quality,” he then offers on the matter of humans’ naturally regretful tendency. “Only over the last year and a half in my career have I seen the wear and tear of trying to build a name and do it my own way and stay true to who I am.
“I think we’re sentimental human beings. If we can’t really face what exactly happened in the past and own up to it to move forward, we get stuck in it. I get stuck in the past all the time these days,” he continues, “but I think of it like a muscle. And I think to myself that it’s like working out and how the brain is a muscle. It’s really a constant discipline to focus on letting go of some of the stuff. It seems it’s almost like a safety net for the human brain to hold on to these tough things in the past. It’s almost like a security blanket and a sick comfort. It’s almost like an addiction to hold on to these things that bring us pain from the past. So, we live in this uncomfort because we don’t want to face the uncomfort of letting the uncomfort go. It’s a paradox.”
Arrested Youth fully and unapologetically exposes his scars across 15 songs. Nonfiction is as mighty as it is deeply intimate, revealing, and life-affirming. When Johnson has said his peace, and the curtain falls in the finale “Woke Up in This Body,” his storytelling powers are indisputable.