There comes a time in everyone’s life where you grow up. Not ‘happy 18th birthday, here’s a car payment, you start work at 8am’ grow up, but the real growing up where you subconsciously come to the realization that life doesn’t always end up the way you hoped for when you were fifteen. On one side of the coin, you have bills, responsibilities, mouths to feed and deadlines to make, but on the other side, you have accepted that the girl you had a crush on is now happily married to someone who is not you, and you are actually happy for her. The teen angst has run dry and you are comfortable with your life decisions enough that you can enjoy the simple things life has to offer like watching the sun rise alone while your family sleeps, or the moment your coffee has cooled down just enough that you can drink it without roasting your tongue. You aren’t growing up, you have grown up.
Taking Back Sunday have just arrived to that point with “Happiness Is. In the early 2000s, there was a certain movement when the skate punk bands suddenly became sensitive and in touch with their emotions enough to stop singing about boards and brew, and starting singing songs about unrequited love, being friend-zoned, and heart break. Depending on how old you were in that era, these kids were labeled as “emo”. I’ve never been cool enough to be in any real scene, and I was probably a bit too old at the time to fall in this counter culture, but I did in fact like quite a few of these “emo” bands. Taking Back Sunday was one of them.
Taking Back Sunday wasn’t anywhere near as sappy as say Dashboard Confessional, not as immature as New Found Glory, and not gothic enough to be My Chemical Romance. They were their own thing. Sure, most of their songs dealt with all the melodramatic scenarios other bands of the genre dealt with but they weren’t as pretentious with their expression. Their songs featured singer Adam Lazzara and guitarist John Nolan (or Fred Mascherino if you got into them a year or two later) spitting schizophrenic lyrical phrases back and fourth to each other more like conversation than verses, melodic, sing-a-long choruses, pounding guitars, and bipolar tempo changes. When the songs weren’t broken heart mopey they were witty, frantically paced anthems that just about every kid under the age of twenty could sing along with word per word. Not only did they know the target audience, but they identified with them. All without relying on generic gimmicks or ‘cute’ videos like some other bands had, to soon there were gobbled up by a major label, altered the line-up, and took their “bros before hoes” mentality to the masses. For the most part, it made them a better band. Working with the right producers and growing as musicians, Taking Back Sunday were able to fine tune their craft. The emo scene was dying but they continued to thrive as artists. Most acts of the genre were diluted by major label input and found themselves adapting to the pop world, doing songs with hip-hop artists or anything to help stay relevant (Fall Out Boy comes to mind) or just falling apart altogether.
Taking Back Sunday stuck around and weathered the storm, releasing three major label records Line-up changes and a few missteps here and there aside, Taking Back Sunday remained a legitimate band. Sadly though, an identity crisis was starting to take it’s toll. By the time the late-mid 2000s came around, the emo scene was dead and gone and the major label they were on, were pushing them down a more pop friendly route. They were becoming creatively exhausted while trying to figure out which fan base they were making records for and even went as far as reuniting with the ‘classic’ line up for their next album to correct some chemistry issues that were slowly eating away at the band. The end result was 2011’s self-titled album. The original line-up worked wonders for the inner band chemistry but there was still a problem as to what kind music they were doing. The album was decent but tone wise it was all over the place. It was obvious they were trying too hard to make the label happy with more pop friendly songs all the while being a shadow of their former angsty selves. To solve that problem, they left Warner Bros. and went with the indie label Hopeless Records (which houses other former scene bands like The Used). Without money counting, bloody sucking executives pressuring them into becoming the next Maroon 5, Taking Back Sunday went back to basics to record what would become “Happiness Is”.
Knowing the history of the band is vital to enjoying “Happiness Is”. There’s plenty of nostalgia to be had here with this record and in some ways, it sounds like it’s more like a sequel to their 2004 pre-major label album “Where You Want To Be” than it does their multi-million dollar 2011 self titled production for Warner Bros. In other ways, it sounds as if they have realized they are no longer in their early twenties, crying about being friend-zoned, and decided to channel that energy into making a better record. The lead single, and one of the stronger cuts on the album “Flicker, Fade” deals with the same sulky, unrequited love beat Taking Back Sunday kids fell in love with in 2003, but on a much more mature level. There’s no crying, kicking and screaming, just bittersweet realization that not all relationships work out, sometimes both people involved are at fault and that’s okay. “Stood A Chance” is about as close as the record gets to major label, pop Taking Back Sunday. The frantic key changes are all there as well as the sing-a-long chorus but this time it’s a bit more subdued. Middle ways through the song, it breaks down into a heartbeat-esque drum heavy post chorus and from then on out, the album rarely escapes it. With that said, even at it’s moodiest like the song “Beat Up Car” it never really gets obnoxious or remotely close to the emotionally temperamental antics early in the band’s career. Turning back that energy changes the dynamic slightly but in more good ways than bad. Adam’s voice has gotten better of the years and there’s more singing on this album than screaming. John Nolan is still not as dominate in the band as Fred Macherino, but his presence is actually felt on this album, despite being pushed into the background on the last record. With that said, each band member gets their opportunity to prove their worth. From Eddie Reyes impeccable rhythm guitar, Mark O’Connel’s thunderous percussion, to Shaun Cooper (no relation) finally giving previous bassist Matt Rubano, a run for his money with some of the best bass guitar the band has ever had.
This new found maturity can be viewed in both a good way and a bad way. Bad news first. upon first listen this mid tempo heavy tracklisting tends to blend in together. Just about every song features the same guitar tone and production where it’s hard to distinguish which song is which until it get’s to the chorus and even then, they are probably interchangeable. The good news is, just about every single Taking Back Sunday album before it has the same issue. The songs are growers and take multiple listens before they get under your skin, but when they do, it’s revealed why this band has been able to stick around so many years despite label ups and downs, line-up changes, and music styles. They have become a legitimately good band.
For me, the stand out track is “We Were Younger Then” which could very well be about growing up and realizing the beauty of adulthood as much as it could be a Dear John Letter to the emo scene. Taking Back Sunday might not be the skinny jeans, chucks, and swooped hair scene kids anymore but they are still making nostalgic melancholy anthems for the same audience who are now in their early thirties just like they are. The fan base as well as the band has grown up. The songs about nasty breakups have been replaced with songs about divorces and the slight possibility of finally being at peace with that. Solidifying that notion are the album’s ballads like “It Takes More”. It tells me that they have grown up enough to look back on their younger days fondly rather than staying bitter. The hook in that song is one of the highlights of the entire record. There isn’t too many of those hints within this album but they can be seen as a glimmer of hope that they are far more self aware than what they are letting on “Happiness Is” is not the most exciting record you will pick up this year and it’s not even the most exciting record in the band’s repertoire.
If you have never given their previous albums a listen, there is nothing here that will make you go back. But if you were a fan ten or twelve years ago, there’s plenty here to check out even if just for the warm fuzzy nostalgia of hearing what the band you listened to as a teen is up to. This album makes me extremely curious as to what they will do on the next outing. It’s clear they are not going the pop Top 40 route, but they are far too old to try to appeal the fifteen year olds thankfully. They have broken up with the scene that embraced them, but it’s obvious, they are still friends.