Even though it has become painfully cliché for a music reviewer to reference it whenever mentioning the historic Long Island outfits Brand New and Taking Back Sunday, it is true that I’ll never forget both the bitterness and the thrill of following the beef between these two bands. It’s a story that bears all the hallmarks of musical legend— the convoluted web of name-calling, lyrical call-outs, fan-fueled conspiracy theories, and dark lines drawn in Long Island sands between fans and band members alike. While the spectacle has certainly entered into the holy sepulchre of musical history reserved for bad blood between artists, I’ve always had a sense of melancholy for how John Nolan became relegated to sideline status as the feud between Adam Lazzara and Jesse Lacey reached its fever pitch in the early 2000s. An outrageously talented musician and singer, it has always felt wrong that Nolan’s band Straylight Run (who formed following his split from Taking Back Sunday) received so much attention for being a byproduct of the TBS/Brand New dispute rather than being taken seriously as an incredible band in their own right. While we can go back and forth forever about reading in between the lines in the lyrics for TBS’s “Great Romances of the 20th Century” and Brand New’s “Seventy Times Seven” (google it if you’re interested, but be prepared to roll your eyes forever), Nolan deserves major credit for not dragging his band baggage into Straylight’s gorgeous self-titled record.
Post-The Needles The Space, Nolan sort of dropped off my radar until he and bassist Shaun Cooper rejoined Taking Back Sunday in 2010. Apparently since 2009 Nolan has been producing solo albums. Maybe this reveals that I’m not as much of true fan of his work as I thought, but I feel a certain vindication as it seems (at least from the sources I tend to follow) that Nolan has really only modestly promoted his solo work. It was actually completely by accident that I stumbled onto 2018’s Abendigo while reading up about Taking Back Sunday’s 20th anniversary releases and shows. Intrigued, I cued it up on YouTube and the next thing I knew I was ordering an LP from his website and listening to the album every day. If you search for other reviews of this album, you’ll find other writers describing this album as the current pinnacle of Nolan’s solo career, one reviewer even eloquently describing it as his Science Fiction(the most recent, likely final, and transcendent 2017 Brand New album). Comparisons aside, this is a damn-near flawless indie rock album. Nolan is at the height of his powers here. There’s echoes of his most intimate, heartrending ballads from the Straylight days (see: “How Much Difference Does It Make?”), a dash of his most explosive vocal contributions from Tell All Your Friends-era TBS (see: “Anything You Want”), and his most experimental offerings from late Straylight (see: “Do You Remember”).
Beneath everything is the undeniable truth that John Nolan is criminally underused in the current iteration of TBS. Without asking him directly, it’s hard to say if that’s his choice, but I can’t help but feel like if Nolan can produce a “Smiling and Alive” and an “Over Before It Begins” on the same album on his own, imagine what he could do if he had a little more artistic control of the writing of a TBS album? Honestly, I would do anything to see his solo work get the production support and marketing that TBS gets (even halfwhat TBS gets). If this album is any indication, Nolan isn’t burning out. If anything, Abendigo is an eight-track anthology of everything Nolan is still capable of, a reminder that the dude is just a solid songwriter through and through. If you’re looking for Straylight Run, you will only find fragments and echoes and honestly that’s okay with me. Straylight Run was of a moment, and while I’d be more than happy to see Michelle Nolan come back to work with her brother (or even reprise her vocal work with TBS), Nolan’s musical palette has become broader and more sophisticated. I for one want to see more like Abendigo, especially if its Nolan can get the production support and time to make an album that feels a little less like a sampler of everything he can do. That being said, I’ll also keep buying those albums too if Nolan can keep churning them out at this quality.