With the arrival of Taking Back Sunday’s 20th anniversary compilation albumsignaling to emo kids everywhere that they are now in their 30s or 40s (eek!), it feels like the right time to address TBS’s contributions to scene through the lens of what is, in my humble opinion, their best offering post-2004. But wait, you say, what about Louder Now (2006)!?!?! It had “MakeDamnSure,” “What Does It Feel Like To Be A Ghost?,” and “Liar (It Takes One to Know One)!” I know, I know, but bear with me. Louder Now has some great songs on it and certainly signaled the end of the Tell All Your Friendsand Where You Want To Besinging days for Adam Lazzara whose vocal affect was clearly significantly affected by the stylistic and line-up changes that would follow Louder Now. My biggest gripe with Louder Nowis its lack of tonal cohesion. Whereas “My Blue Heaven” has some of the most interesting and original moments ever in TBS’s catalogue, what am I supposed to do with “Miami?” Some of the songs (especially the B side) are down-right boring, lacking any kind of interesting interplay between Lazzara and Fred Mascherino’s vocals, new approaches to songwriting, or the kind of explosive emotional ruptures that made Where You Want To Beso brilliant. Additionally, let’s face it, even album standout “MakeDamnSure,” certainly the most classic TBS-sounding song on the album, sounds more like a track that didn’t make the cut on Where You Want To Be.
The truth is that my issues with the majority of TBS’s catalogue has less to do than I would like (being a die-hard John Nolan fan) with the difference between Mascherino and John Nolan. There’s nothing that needs to be said about Tell All Your Friends, it’s brilliant, edgy, and perfect debut. Maybe this isn’t a popular position, but honestly, I also love Where You Want To Be. It’s probably the best-produced and most clearly conceived album the band has ever done especially when you look at Adam Lazzara. The fact of the matter is that Lazzara is the best and worst thing about TBS. At the top of his game, he’s an exciting, mic-swinging, dynamic vocalist and performer (try not to get emotionally swept up in the bridge and final chorus of “A Decade Under The Influence.”I dare you.). At his most affected and least convincing (here’s looking at you most of Louder Now, ALL of New Again, and ALL of Taking Back Sunday), Lazzara is an albatross around the band’s neck who seems to frequently struggle with how to play nice with others. Let’s not forget that the legendary beef between TBS and Brand Newwas at least partially because Adam Lazzara struggles to share the spotlight.
Nobody was more thrilled than me to hear that Lazzara and Nolan had made up and reformed the original Tell All Your Friendsline up or more disappointed when I heard the album that came from their reunion. The biggest issue with Taking Back Sundayis that it’s a passionless, stale, and overwrought album, completely devoid of any kind of tension and symbiosis between the two historically complimentary vocal styles of Lazzara and Nolan. I won’t pretend that I know all the details of the production, but I had the distinct feeling while listening to the self-titled that Nolan was asked to hang back so that the new and improved Lazzara could shine. This is a fatal mistake for TBS. Lazzara just doesn’t have the range or charisma to consistently carry the vocals on his own, nor should he. It’s kind of your thing, TBS, and everyone knows it.
Which brings me to 2014’s Happiness Is, an album that kind of snuck in under the radar for me and seemed to lack the same press and fan excitement as previous releases (but maybe I was just so depressed by New Againand Taking Back Sundaythat I wasn’t really paying close attention). Happiness Isgives me hope. The album kicks the door in with one of the best bangers the band has put out in a decade, “Flicker, Fade,”and it just keeps rocking from there. While the listener is still going to notice that John Nolan is still not nearly as present as a singer and musician of his skills deserves (Straylight Run anyone?), his trademark growl is actually present here (especially noticeable in the fantastic bridge for “Flicker, Fade”). One of the best parts of this album is its thematic cohesion. Every song on here contributes to a larger narrative, which is especially noticeable on the album’s emotional peaks: “Flicker, Fade,” “Better Homes and Gardens,” and “Nothing At All.” The story of loss, fallout from divorce, of facing your younger self as you approach middle age are all powerful topics and perfectly suited to TBS’s style. This is a band that has always had the most success when dealing with pain by looking it square in the face, by baring the negative, angry, selfish sides of the soul alongside the victim’s bleeding heart. TBS’s best songs are about admitting fault, slamming doors, the wild mascara-streaked face of the jilted lover who feels entitled to a little revenge, even if it’s an imagined one.
I’ll admit that I’ve only given 2016’s Tidal Wavea couple of listens. While there is certainly some good songs on there, and TBS has neversounded like they do on Tidal Wave, it’s not a sound that really fits the aesthetic they’ve perfected. While growing, changing, and maturing are all great in theory, I wonder why every band feels this need to dramatically change their sound between albums. TBS, you’re not David Bowie or Tom Waits and that’s okay. Nobody needs you to be. With more John Nolan and a little less Adam Lazzara trying to be a 90s grunge singer, Happiness Iswould have been TBS’s best album to date. The new tracks, “All Ready To Go” and “A Song For Dan,” off their 20th anniversary compilation album give me real hope. More Happiness Isless Tidal Wave, these songs seem to point to some recognition of how to better play to their strengths.
If you’re the band that wrote the effervescent “Your Own Disaster”(*weeps uncontrollably*), why would you then make a punk album without any of the political commentary that makes punk interesting? Maybe I’m just a frustrated fan and consumer and I’ve lost sight of how much fun it must be to experiment with sounds and styles with all your friends in a band. I guess I’m not saying don’t try new things, but maybe don’t throw everything you’re good at out the window in the process? My worry is that fans will forget Happiness Iswithin TBS’s long, colorful discography. In truth, it’s a really good album that lays the pathway for how a millennial emo band can grow up and still swing my heart strings like an extra-long mic cable.