I got into Taking Back Sunday and Brand New completely at the wrong time.
When I was in high school, I listened to music for 20somethings. Now that I’m in my mid-20s, I spend an inordinate amount of time listening to stuff written for, consumed by, and most heavily applicable to high schoolers. And few groups in that category have ever hit me harder than Taking Back Sunday and Brand New, two iconic Long Island, NY emo-pop groups who re-defined their stagnant genre with a dizzying array of cathartic songs and evocative lyrics.
Forever linked for a variety of reasons—childhood friendships, similarity of (initial) sound, incestuous relationships, etc—‘Brand New Sunday,’ as I’ll call them, provided angsty early 2000s teens punky songs songs with extra layers of unpredictability, aggression, and precision. They copied from each other, lived out true-story melodramas that seemed designed just to give them song material, and-let’s not forget this part-created some of the most entertaining music of their time.
Taking Back Sunday was the more traditionally emo group, right down to their name—although they jacked their stuff up with the type of epic scope and anthemic choruses more reminiscent of prime Oasis or U2 (see ‘You Know How I Do’ or ‘You’re So Last Summer’). Their Long Island compatriots tried to branch out a little more, veering from early works that sounded like more interesting Weezer (‘Failure by Design’) to quiet and atmospheric songs that almost remind you of the Red House Painters (‘Jesus’). On later Brand New albums, you might even find lyrics that focus on personal growth, rather than a girl—the horror!
Both groups are responsible for some of their decade’s most memorable and oft-quoted entries, and I think that’s largely due to their willingness to dive deeper than many of their predecessors. The words of many 90s pop-emo songs were deeply felt, sure, but often vague—full of flashes of images and abstract metaphors rather than fully-defined stories. Popular groups such as Sunny Day Real Estate and The Get Up Kids traded on nebulous lines like “Sincerity, trust in me / Throw myself into your door” or “I lost myself in your embrace / I saw the lie become clear.”
Not to say such a style can’t work, obviously; but in this particular genre—with teenagers desperate to hear resonant lyrics that hit specific feelings—Brand New Sunday’s approach worked better. They were able to increase the emotional immediacy by including detailed stories, capturing personal observations, and mainlining honesty. And by frequently having two singers sing different lines over the top of each other, they conveyed the impression of an anguished, intensely personal conversation that you just couldn’t turn away from.
To wit: BN’s ‘Seventy Times 7’ recounts a friend’s betrayal with vivid, over-the-top anger. “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot” sounds like a resigned conversation you probably had with your ex-girlfriend in high school (“If it makes you less sad, I’ll take your pictures all down / Every picture you paint, I will paint myself out.”) Meanwhile, their masterpiece ‘Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis’ is a positively devastating take-down of the mindset of a player on the prowl for a drunken hookup: ‘Your eyes are fighting sleep while your mouth makes your demands / You laugh at every word, trying hard to be cute / I almost feel sorry for what I’m gonna do.”
TBS achieved a similar effect by eschewing imagery in favor of specific insults, praises, or come-ons; they always made you feel like they were sharing lines their girlfriends had just said to them (“Boys like you are a dime a dozen”) or feelings they pondered the night before (“This won’t mean a thing come tomorrow, and that’s exactly how I’ll make it seem”).
And TBS’s songs that veer more abstract and less specific, as on much of their second album, Where You Want To Be, are less impactful. (Although a large reason for the inferiority of their mid-career albums is the absence of John Nolan and his cutting, hyper-dramatic voice, without which the songs are less arresting, less rich, less distinctive.)
Of course, when this particular songwriting approach goes wrong, critics decry it as ‘diary lyrics,’ and the battle is pretty much lost. But because Brand New Sunday were so stunningly poignant—with their thunderous sounds often belying the emotional lyrics underneath—they carved out the perfect niche for themselves. (As an aside, I believe that this sort of lyrical style is a large explanation for the success of expressive 2000s artists like Dashboard Confessional and Bright Eyes.)
Those lyrics captured a classic tendency of this genre—as mentioned by Andy Greenwald in his entertaining book Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo—of singers portraying girls as either flawless, shining beauties or heartless bitches. True to form, BNS slalomed from extreme simping—that pathetic feeling that you’d just do anything for her, no matter what—to cruel dismissiveness from song to song.
Of course, that’s the essence of being 16—at that age, the dichotomy between begging and shunning has virtually no gap between it; you may feel both emotions in the same hour. But when you don’t get into this music until your 20s, you already have that understanding of being a little bit smarter and better than that now, no matter how accurate those lyrics used to be. That little bit of perspective and self-awareness washes over you, coating your feelings in a self-satisfied gloss that strips away any possible guilt or reservation.
And that’s why I unashamedly adore this music, even if it’s less applicable for me than others and even if I’d probably be the old man at their concerts. If someone introduced me to them a decade ago, I probably would have taken their lyrics as gospel, clutching them to my chest like a prized possession I didn’t want to blow away in the wind. I would have just eaten up the similarities between my dramas and theirs—like the girl who thought of me much like the one in ‘You’re So Last Summer’ does, the one who made me sick of writing every damn thing about her long before I heard that line conclude ‘Head Club.’ Or the other girl who made me a little more desperately obvious than obviously desperate, although I hadn’t realized how close I was to either.)
But, although I can’t revel in the ‘me-too!’ feelings as strongly as some teens probably can, Brand New Sunday still affect me just as strongly. There’s a certain relief that washes over you when you can channel such accurate, poignant lyrics but know that you don’t think like that anymore. The greatest gift of Brand New and Taking Back Sunday, really, is their ability to make high school seem far better than it ever was. Listening to their albums makes you feel the way you hope you felt when you were 16—that all the dramas, no matter how much anguish they provoked, were worth it. These albums feel like the best memory anyone could have ever had, and I wonder whether you can see them in the same way if you’re too young to vote.
Of course, that fluffy stuff—that notion that this stuff just means so much, man, and you can’t understand, and it defines my life, man—is emo’s great cliché. And while I can’t deny that it holds true with these groups, it does help that their works, quite simply, sound utterly fantastic. You could forget about all the drama and just take Taking Back Sunday’s “Bike Scene” as a perfect rock song. Likewise, countless others have tried to write their version of Brand New’s ‘Jude Law and a Semester Abroad,’ but none have been able to make it sound so titanic and uplifting while simultaneously putting everyone down. Meanwhile, BN’s second album, Deja Entendu, swerves and dips and turns and peaks from moments of quiet stillness to dense aggression and ends up somewhere in between both and neither at once.
Despite my deep admiration for Brand New, Taking Back Sunday remains my preferred artist, as no one has quite made high school feel exactly like they do. No one else was better at modifying the course of a song midstream—either with a shifted melody or those double-tracked vocals that keep you unsure of where the song will end up and hold your attention up until the very end. ‘Last Summer’ will always be their high-water mark, but the second verse of “Great Romances of the 20th Century” is the most perfect thing they’ve ever done: the best, and most heartbreaking, and most euphonious encapsulation of that feeling of fighting with your girlfriend in the middle of the night—and wondering which aspects of it will carry over into tomorrow—that I’ve ever heard.
And ultimately, these groups’ heart—along with those astonishing overlapped vocals, those blood-pumping choruses and turns of phrase you wish you didn’t relate to—will keep them relevant for years to come. When Brand New ended their debut album with the appeal of “You’re just jealous ‘cause we’re young and in love,” it felt like something they were hoping to be true as much as anything else. It felt like that time in high school when you wanted, desperately, to boast something like that to your friends…if only you were sure yourself.
Deep down, you might not have been, but you sure as hell knew that it was consuming all your waking—and nighttime—hours. And, really, if it’s not keeping you up nights, then what’s the point?