Once upon a time, back in the mid ’00s, I was a brooding, self-proclaimed emo kid. Like most other bratty tweens of the era, I dressed in black clothes splashed with neon and spent all of my allotted internet time on websites like Myspace and PureVolume, searching for songs whose lyrics I could paste into my online profiles in order to trumpet the depth and anguish of my troubled soul. This process was a competition among the Myspace Generation — the goal was to unearth the bands that nobody else had heard of yet, for the sake of bragging rights, as well as in the hope that none of your friends would recognize your odes to misery and would assume that you’d written them yourself.
This was before my metamorphosis into the internet maven I am today. I never thought to click beyond the upper crust of “emo” (quotes included on purpose, because I’ve since learned about real emo, and I’m a huge, obnoxious bitch about its definition) and I spent my Hot Topic years absorbed in the polished, whining angst of the most mainstream bands in the “genre.” (It’s not actually a genre! We had it all wrong, guys!) Taking Back Sunday was always my favorite — to this day, no song is more representative of overblown junior high heartache than “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut from the Team)” — which I’d play on repeat in my dad’s car on the way to school each morning. Each day, he referred to them as “Boys Who Cry” and assured me that, by the time I got my braces off, the band would be a thing of the past.
I’ve since grown out my hot-pink bangs and donated my studded belts to my little sister. However, my father’s predictions have been proven miserably wrong, not only by every suburban twentysomething I’ve ever seen screaming a Taking Back Sunday song at a house party, but by the amount of solid music the Long Island band has released since their own teenage beginnings in 1999. Each of their albums has remained consistent with the sound and feeling of their beloved 2002 debut Tell All Your Friends, and their latest, Happiness Is, is no exception.
It isn’t hard to define Taking Back Sunday’s appeal. The production is clean and easily digestible, with no overwhelming instrumentation. Singer Adam Lazzara has a powerful voice that clearly illustrates the temperament of each song. The lyrics in Happiness Is remain as expressive and emotional as ever — although most of the band’s members are married and have probably moved on from the heartbreak that inspired their early albums, you’d never know it from the content. Songs like “Beat Up Car” feel like they were meant to be shouted at the same girl they’ve been shouting at for 15 years. Each song comes neatly packaged with a catchy hook and more of the clever refrains that hop back and forth from bitterness to longing, and are just as fun to scream as the ones that turned Taking Back Sunday’s early songs into buddy-profile staples. The most prominent example comes in “They Don’t Have Any Friends,” in which Lazzara laments his ambivalence and taunts the listener: “Did it make you happy/Did it make you anything at all?” over the crashing cymbals and angsty melodies that exemplify the band’s signature sound.
A sprinkling of mellow love songs balances the album’s intensity; “Nothing at All” is soft and slow, and a closer look at the lyrics of the songs (especially “We Were Younger Then”) shows the band’s awareness of their growth and ability to use their musical strengths to recount their journey. Nevertheless, the album sounds like it was made by a big-bucks major label band with a team of people producing and writing the album to appeal to the widest possible audience of Kids Who Cry. But my favorite thing about Happiness Is is that it wasn’t a major label production at all.
Although Taking Back Sunday had released most of their albums through Warner Brothers, for Happiness Is the band partnered with the independent Hopeless Records. The band members have explained in interviews that they felt they were being undermined by Warners’ more marketable mainstream pop acts and that the label was reluctant to spend money on a band that was unwilling to tailor their sound to fit a mainstream mold. This is not a new sentiment — many artists confess to some creative frustration while working in the clutches of the Man. What’s interesting (and admirable) is that instead of watering themselves down for Top 40 radio stations, Taking Back Sunday brought their work to a smaller label and relied on the strength of the music itself to maintain their momentum.
It’s refreshing to see a band that has remained both consistently great and hugely successful relinquish the coveted major label deal in favor of maintaining their creative freedom and identity. That’s what makes Taking Back Sunday the band we’ll all remember when we try to explain to our children why we were wearing so much eyeliner in our seventh grade yearbook photos, and Happiness Is is yet another great record to add to your Pity Party Playlist.