Taking Back Sunday - Tell All Your Friends
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Though Taking Back Sunday singer Adam Lazzara flung himself round the University of New South Wales Roundhouse stage in Sydney last March, his on-stage acrobatics were overshadowed by the spontaneous performance devised by a couple in the crowd. As the band launched into “You’re So Last Summer,” the pair began to act out the lyrics: “She said, ‘Don’t, don’t let it go to your head’”—the girl motioned toward her boyfriend’s head—“Boys like you are a dime a dozen”—the girl mimed pushing her boyfriend away, and so on.
It was an awe-inspiringly passionate, embarrassingly uninhibited expression of fandom, and more than a bit ridiculous. It exemplifies the reason emo bands are followed with such enthusiasm and yet simultaneously mocked so bitterly. It’s easy to play the snooty hipster in such situations; no-one acts out the lyrics to Arcade Fire songs at their shows, even if tunes about vampires and police disco lights would create some amazing theatre.
But the kind of obsession that drives fans to choreograph routines to three-minute punk songs is behind radio emo’s ascent from underground curio to commercial juggernaut. From high school to teenage bedroom, through MP3s and instant messages, the genre spearheaded a quiet revolution, infiltrating the charts and annexing the modern rock format from alt-rock dullards and anaemic singer-songwriters. Much of this unassuming revolution is due to elements found on Taking Back Sunday’s 2002 album Tell All Your Friends, which contains the track that inspired the Australian couple’s dramaturgical desires.
Tell All Your Friends’ 34 fantastic, overwrought minutes are perhaps this flavour of emo’s greatest achievement, and yet Taking Back Sunday are only just beginning to find the success of their descendents Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance. The album is, while perhaps not the cause, certainly a key catalyst for the significant cultural penetration achieved by the genre over the past few years. It sketches out the convergence of theatricality and emotional honesty, pop hooks and abrasive hardcore, bad teenage poetry and brilliant hyper-emotionalism that would go on to distinguish “Sugar, We’re Going Down,” “Helena” and any number of others.
Like much of its audience, it’s relentlessly suburban, from the image of the freeway exit on the sleeve to the parkways and backyards that provide the setting for the emotional turmoil within. But rather than the intellectually distanced take on middle class teenage life from those who have grown up and moved on, such as the Hold Steady or Fountains of Wayne, Taking Back Sunday sound like they’re still in the thick of it. The album is obsessed with trivialities and treats mundane social events as sensational matters of critical importance, much the same way people treat the events of their own lives.
In the course of Tell All Your Friends, they carved out their particular style, typified by duelling guitars colliding with refined melodic elements in constant ebb and flow, as chaotic musically as it was thematically, and all greatly assisted by the interplay between Lazzara and the band’s now-departed second vocalist, John Nolan. Together, the two singers sound like a mind trying to clear its muddled thoughts, at times shouting over the top of each other, one occasionally crooning while the other screams, alternately reinforcing and contradicting.
At these moments, accusing bands like Taking Back Sunday of being histrionic is missing the point, and also a lot of the more subtle aspects. Indeed, Lazzara’s self-effacing description of “trying hard to make sure that you’re seen with a girl on your arm and your heart on your sleeve,” is a far more accurate characterization of contemporary emo than most critiques from the genre’s detractors; in 2006, emo is emotional extroversion as lifestyle accessory. Wearing your heart on your sleeve is a badge of pride and allegiance as well as an evisceration.
The band’s lyrics, in particular, are notable for creating a new construct for emo. Rather than the barefaced self-deprecation or the poetic or pseudo-poetic descriptions of feelings that formed the lyrical backbone of earlier groups, Lazzara and Nolan operate by taking a broad emotional slogan and repeating it over and over again, running it into the ground and dragging it through contexts until their phrasing has been exhausted of meaning, at which point they move on to the next. “You Know How I Do”’s mantra, “We won’t stand for hazy eyes anymore,” is given little meaning outside the determined vocal delivery. But while one singer provides the lyric as an anchor, the other weaves lines detailing conflict between lovers, aimless nights in front of the TV and being “smoked out in the back of a van.” It’s the kind of clever/dumb construction that invites repeated listens and rewards those who pay close attention—that is, pretty much the band’s entire fan base.
The best track here, “Cute Without the E (Cut from the Team),” is the locus of any number of modern emo devices. For example, the use of weapon imagery to illustrate depth of feeling; the firearm allusions in Fall Out Boy’s hit “Sugar We’re Going Down,” are awfully similar to the Lazzara command to, “Tell all your friends, you’ve got your gun to my head.” (Lazzara is obviously fond of the gun as lyrical device: he packs heat in “Timberwolves in New Jersey” and “There’s No ‘I’ in Team,” too). Other, more inconsequential, lyrical tics such as the faintly demeaning pet names for (ex-)girlfriends can also be found; with Fall Out Boy addressing their lover as, “Sugar,” and Panic! At The Disco titling a track, “There is a Reason Why These Tables Are Numbered, Honey…” Taking Back Sunday could’ve easily turned the opening lyric of “Cute Without the E,” “Don’t bother, angel, I know exactly what goes on,” into a chart-topping hit.
But the most recognizable link between Taking Back Sunday brand emo and the groups who run radio today is the confidence the music possesses. Emo that troubles the charts has undergone such an extensive transformation from its earlier days that it bears little resemblance to its musical predecessors. In 2002, when Tell All Your Friends was released, emo was still the poor cousin of indie rock, but even within that subculture, derided as over-earnest. Throughout the 90s and early 00s, the genre was characterized as music made by and for shy, over-sensitive boys, a caricature that was broadly accurate. The lyrics were obscure, the vocals were mumbled or sobbed and it was all wrapped up in an indie rock guitar throb.
Taking Back Sunday and its brethren bear little resemblance to this model. They still sing of heartbreak, but do so with a sense of humour and self-assurance groups like Braid or Texas Is The Reason can’t. Indeed, emo is one of the few contemporary forms of rock music, both commercial and indie, that shares hip-hop’s charisma and confidence. In Taking Back Sunday’s case, much of this is due to Lazzara’s vocals; he can sound invincible and fragile at the same time, expressing vulnerability while still taunting ex-lovers or members of other bands.
When emo first made tentative steps toward the mainstream, its best hope appeared to be a cleaned up version of the mid-90s aesthetic. Groups such as Jimmy Eat World and The Get Up Kids wrote the same earnest songs, but with bigger, glossier hooks and more straightforward lyrics. It is odd then, that when emo finally did storm the charts, it was not in the Trojan Horse model acts like New Found Glory pursued, but in its louder, brasher and more prickly guise. It was loaded with overdriven guitar, rife with hardcore yelping and its hyper-emotional lyrical content inclined to the ultra-personal end of the spectrum. That modern rock radio took any interest in it is unusual, that this hyper-emo form of the genre became ubiquitous in a matter of a few years is incredible. Panic! At The Disco and Hawthorne Heights may seem painfully mediocre now, but compared to the Third Eye Blinds and Creeds that once occupied the airwaves in their place, their presence is near revolutionary. It should have been obvious; selling teenagers narcissistic songs about heartbreak and pain seems a no-brainer, and yet, it took around 20 years from emo’s conception to today’s landscape where modern rock and emo are practically synonymous.
Of course, Taking Back Sunday didn’t invent these tricks. Various permutations of their modus operandi can be found in all of the band’s mid-Atlantic contemporaries. The emo that is the foundation for today’s modern rock was forged in this exurban crucible and the multitude of other groups arising from that scene, such as Lifetime, Thursday, Glassjaw, Brand New, Coheed and Cambria, Saves the Day, or Northstar (Who TBS describe in the Tell All Your Friends liner notes as, “the greatest band ever”) have as much claim to originating the style as Taking Back Sunday. Tell All Your Friends, then, is notable not so much for being a blueprint as it is a playbook, the collated efforts of a scene distilled into ten tracks that would provide the perfect How-To guide for teenagers with guitars all over the United States and beyond. All the fans need to provide are the dance moves.
By: Jonathan Bradley
Published on: 2006-07-11
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