Taking Back Sunday is the sine qua non of third-wave emo. For fans of emo and pop-punk in their mid-20s or 30s, it’s virtually impossible to imagine life without the band. Tell All Your Friends (2002) is an indisputably influential entry the genre and some identify it as the essential emo release of the decade.
As of late, interest and (yes) respect for emo and pop-punk have been substantially rekindled due to a new wave of output by bands like The Wonder Years, Dads, The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Real Friends and Citizen (I could go on). As we sit back and enjoy this remarkable “fourth wave” in emo history, it’s legitimately gratifying to see that third-wave stalwarts like TBS are still at it.
But it’s also this context that forces us to raise the stakes somewhat for assessing the quality of their new album, provocatively titled (for an emo record) Happiness Is. TBS is no longer at the sexy, sad cutting edge of emo music or meaningfully in touch with wider youth culture. Adam Lazzara may go down in history as the first, and probably the only, legitimate rock star in emo history, but the band’s relevance today feels more nostalgically institutional than culturally functional.
Maybe that’s an inaccurate perception. A lot of critics will be saying that TBS is “back” with this latest release, but really the band never went anywhere. Just under three years ago they released a criminally underrated self-titled record, which represented a shockingly energetic recovery from the admitted artistic failure of 2009’s New Again. It’s probably a minority opinion, but one can make the argument unblushingly that Taking Back Sunday (2011) was just as good as Louder Now (2006), if not better.
But most significantly, 2011’s Taking Back Sunday boasted the unlikely reassembly of the band’s original lineup, including the return of estranged guitarist, backup vocalist, and all-out prodigal son John Nolan. If you had asked seventeen-year-old me if Nolan would ever return to Taking Back Sunday, I would have scoffed and told you that he already wrote the album of the decade with Straylight Run and that Taking Back Sunday wouldn’t last much longer. But of course, I’d have been wrong (about one of those things). Happiness Is is now the third release (out of six total albums) to feature the original lineup of Adam Lazzara, John Nolan, Eddie Reyes, Shaun Cooper, and Mark O’Connell.
Now that we’re clear on all that, onto the merits of Happiness Is.
The great Taking Back Sunday records tend to be substantively defined by their first track. The stubborn anthem of “You Know How I Do” or the lively cynicism of “Set Phasers to Stun” both tell us precisely what we need to know about their respective albums, setting the listener up sonically and emotionally for the experience to come.
So, I knew I was in for something dramatic when I saw that not only was this the first TBS record to have an intro track, but that it was stiltedly titled “Preface.” Sure enough, it’s just as grandiloquent as one would imagine: a kind of swelling violin sequence that you’d expect out of a Cursive album, which leads rather smoothly into the lead single, “Flicker, Fade.”
This song premiered a few months ago, and I still don’t find it terribly exciting. It’s steadily growing on me, burrowing brilliantly into my welcoming psyche, but any sober assessment of the song reveals it to be too preoccupied with its own emotional episode to be concerned with satisfying melody. I think fans will be divided for a long time on this song, amongst one another and within themselves.
But track three is where they usually make their money (see e.g. “Cute Without the ‘E’,” “A Decade Under the Influence,” “MakeDamnSure,” and “Best Places to Be a Mom”). This album bears no exception to that pattern, with the immensely fun and addictive track “Stood a Chance.” This is conventional pop-punk shot through with Lazzara’s sexual charisma and talent for lyrical slogan, with a hook you would die to hear live. The video in particular is a really great time, featuring unapologetic use of primary colors, cute animals, and balloons. Not to mention, of course, there’s still plenty of mic swinging going on (if that’s even your thing).
Following that, we get a nicely melodic ode to jealousy called “All The Way,” which is quite moody and very good. But the record loses shape for the next several tracks. “Beat Up Car” through “Better Homes and Gardens” are all very decent songs, and all very TBS in character, but none seem to resonate, at least until listeners are woken up a bit with the upbeat albeit typical pep track “Like You Do.”
The penultimate track “We Were Younger Then” is easily the album’s finest song, and not just because its title is willing to get real with the aging band and its principal fan base of immature adult men. The song is both catchy and contemplative, with yearning statements like “I remember when comfort was not an option.” The song closes out with an unexpected and beautifully written bridge, where listeners are left wondering “where the city stops and the Nothing begins.”
On the whole, this is a good record. But it’s not the band’s most accessible work, and most tracks require some investment before they can be appreciated. However, even after several listens, I can’t say that it’s truly “great.” In the context of their impressive career, it’ll likely be ranked in the lower half of things: certainly better than New Again, but not as good as their last album, and difficult to really compare to the flawed but quintessential middle-period stuff on Louder Now.
Taking Back Sunday won’t likely win any new fans with Happiness Is, but they’ve certainly given their old ones something new to be happy (and super sad) about.
Happiness Is drops March 18, 2014.