01 March, 2011

Album Review - The Get Up Kids, Something To Write Home About

Your age is the hardest age
Everything just drags and drags
You’re lookin’ funny
But you ain’t laughin’, are you?
- The Replacements, “Sixteen Blue”

Pockets empty
How can you tell me that everything will work out?
A pointless fight, when you’re always right
And everything will work out
- The Get Up Kids, “Ten Minutes”

The age of sixteen makes everything so much more amplified.  No matter what you do, see, smell, and/or hear, you will feel it more clearly and pointedly at this age than you ever will again.  Nothing ever feels like it does at that age, and nothing ever should; whether it’s that combination of hormones, the promise that you’ll soon be gone and making decisions for yourself, or finding the open road for the first time.  See, this is also the age when those that are lucky enough to have a car, or access to friends that can drive, will take those first tentative steps toward leaving the house via protracted group trips to destinations unknown. 

When a group of us reached sixteen, we took our seminal spring break trip to a place with endless possibilities:  the promised land of Columbus, Ohio.  During the time spent between watching Kevin Smith films and hitting up Gameworks, we listened to Weezer records (all two of them!).  One day, though, my native Ohio friend took some time to take the Blue Album out and replaced it with a CD that featured two robots sitting at a table together on the cover.  Track 2 immediately came up, and it summed my cynical cigarette-smoking self up better than any bittersweet Fuel song (see what I did there?) could at that time:

I’m down for whatever
What’s there left to wait for?

If you’d asked me whether I’d live for those lyrics ten years later, I’d have thought you were crazy, but that’s exactly what happened.  Over eleven years after its release, the Get Up Kids album Something to Write Home About has achieved a unique distinction within my musical life.  It is the only record from my teenage years that somehow means more to me now than it did at age 16.  Only Nirvana’s In Utero comes close to having more impact in my modern years, and I didn’t really love that album as much as StWHA back then.

The lyrics are one of the main reasons why I so heavily enjoy this album, with an emphasis on the somber realities of growing up.  If I could listen to the lyrics of “Out of Reach” and go back to everything that fell away from me, then the song has succeeded.  Consequently, songs like “Ten Minutes” and “I’m a Loner Dottie, a Rebel” also pack nostalgia and regret into their song structures; the latter’s use of “Last night, everything was right/the rain was gone” is particularly spot-on.  It doesn’t come off as poetry, but a simple observation at the right time.  Only after repeated listens do the lyrics seem to take this monolithic stance.  Now, to be fair there are some duds within the mix.  “Red Letter Day” and “The Company Dime” are particular offenders now, coming off more bitter than bittersweet and featuring such whiny couplets “How could you do this to me?” and “I’m still waiting for you to get over this,” respectively.  Still, these songs move from the place of memory into your cerebellum, and much of these are insightful collections of moments (mis)spent during youth.

This also wouldn’t be possible if the songs weren’t so solid.  The band is in complete lock step formation, with the drums perfectly propelling the twin guitar attack of Matt Pryor and Jim Suptic.  The one-two punch of “Holiday” and “Action and Action” is one of the best opening salvos in all of rock music, which is why “Valentine” is all the more yearning.   

The dichotomy between the lamenting “Out of Reach” and “Ten Minutes” is necessary because the former used to share the ubiquitous Napster filename of “The Most Depressing Song EVER.”  The latter is a propulsive thrust into a summertime drama, with a poignant middle where the hero realizes that he can move on to better places.  “I’m a Loner Dottie, a Rebel” and “Long Goodnight” also repeat this dichotomy in reverse, with the latter building to its screamed declaration that “If it all ended tonight, you know that I wouldn’t mind/it’d be back to the good old times, before it won.”  As a teenager, I couldn’t understand the force of nostalgia and taking me back to better times; now, it seems to be directly plugged into my heart. 

The end of the record is probably the most cathartic creation within musical history (it’s entirely possible I’m overreaching), or at least equivalent to the tension and release of the Cooper Temple Clause’s “Murder Song.”  “I’ll Catch You” was the real reason I ran out to purchase the album in spring of 2000, and matches the former track as an eerie noise-punctuated slow-starter.  What separates both of the two is the resignation to the fact that the narrator will never achieve his dream of connecting to that one person.  It starts with a feedback blast that fades into a hypnotic piano melody, and then Pryor asks if his intended audience can “sleep as the sound hits your ears one at a time, in unspoken balance here?”  As the song builds, guitar comes in with insistent drums until one can’t breathe because of the rising tide of emotion as the narrator receives – and then loses – everything that matters to him, telling his subject not to worry.  Then, just as if you’re going to explode, you catch a break and hear only the piano one more time, with Pryor sigh-screaming “No need for reminding/You’re still all that matters to me!”  The band hits one last chord, feedback drones, fade-out, surrender.  I couldn’t speak the first time I heard this song, and it’s just as hard to put into words now why I love this song so much.  However, this is the cornerstone of the album, and cannot be heard without this song.  

I won’t put as much down here as I have for the previous review because it’s embarrassing to share so much about why I love the album.  However, this record also has that intangible quality of music that I loved when I was at the perfect age to love music, so it has already slipped beyond proper analysis.  It is the burden of every teenager to be so incredibly earnest that they inevitably reach adulthood and look back on their musical selections with some form of collective embarrassment.  It may have made sense to me to get excited to listen to Limp Bizkit, Korn, Creed, and Savage Garden (oh don’t even start with me on this one, all will be explained in due time), but as a maturing adult with a different focus on what’s important to me the songs don’t connect musically or emotionally anymore.  It is so different with the Get Up Kids record that I can hardly believe it.  In my first review I had criticized Bush’s album for not living up to the hype and surrounding emotion people had given it.  Much of that emotion came from the fact that those offended had loved that album when they were younger and claimed that the criticism didn’t matter.  It shouldn’t matter at sixteen, and it shouldn’t matter at twenty-seven, and it won’t matter at forty, fifty, whatever.  Music that makes you feel good is great music to the listener, and more power to you.  However, for the reasons I’ve listed, I will always put Something to Write Home About on my turntable before anything else almost every time, and that to me is the mark of a great, classic album.

Next week I'll do what any self-important rock critic must do to prove themselves: tackle the Rolling Stones.  But it's not an album that you would expect.  Heck, within the band's catalogue, it's the album that NOBODY would expect...


Justin said...

at first listen, i really wasn't a fan of this album. the lead singer was off key throughout, the lyrics didn't hold much weight with me, the music sounded hollow. then i listened to it again. and again. and again.

the lead track seemed way out of place. it felt rushed, empty, and unnecessary. but then i took the time to listen to the song. too many times i hear a song and dismiss it without actually listening to it. then i got it.

it starts as a, 'you bitch you broke my heart and i want you back,' blah, blah, blah. not interested in that. then, in the second act, the song grew some balls:

'your absence speaking everything you think of me
now that I am faced with opportunity
you're not remembering
I'm not asking you anyway'

in other words, he is saying, 'fuck you. i don't need you anyway. i know what you think of me and i don't care.' that's more like it.

slowly i began to realize what the album was about. this is nothing more than a coming-of-age album with ups and downs and back again. the character throughout is asking, who am i? what am i doing with my life? do i like it? do i even like myself? this is teen angst at its self-loathing best.

what saves this album from being completely written off as emo is the heart injected in the lead singers voice and lyrics. dare i say this album deserves an asterisk? - *based on true events.

and the hollow music? perfect. the holes left in the tracks is perfectly reflected in the journey of the lead singer looking for something to fill the void. nothing will ever fill it, as we find out, like the love lost from the very first track.

moody, this is where you and i disagree. the last track is about the hope of redemption and that sometimes, sometimes things work out. the track starts with the lonely realization of no matter what she did to you, she is the one who holds your heart.

'your arms in mine, anytime
i wouldn't trade anything
you're still my everything'

once again, the teen angst is beginning to creep back up as the lead character is reflecting on his life. then, inexplicably, things work out.

'to my surprise, before my eyes, you arrive
don't worry I'll catch you
don't ever worry'

this says to me the woman of his dreams has come back to him. he doesn't deserve it, but she is there. they have both made mistakes, but both realize they are star-crossed. when i hear, 'i'll catch you,' those three words speak magnitudes. he is saying, 'no matter what, no matter your past, your mistakes, your baggage, your craziness, your love, your hate, your everything, i will be there with you. i will be the one to come home to and the one to wake up to because you are the only one i've ever loved and ever will love. it took me this long to figure it out, and i will spend the rest of my days not letting you slip away again.' i know, it's quite a bit for three words.

'don't ever worry
no need for reminding... you're still all that matters to me'

the lead singer directly references the first song about the bitch that crushed him. now she's back and his life is complete. not bad for a teenager with nothing to lose, but a life to gain.

the model said...

Sorry for the repost. Typo fail.

Kyle, I'm with you on a lot here. I do, though, find it odd in a way that you are performing this analysis at all, because I've literally never thought about it. For my friends and I, each of us being this same idiot in our own way, we lived every part of the album, with the music in question there for reflection every step of the way. I think you're suggesting something similar here, yet for me, this music is so intricately weaved into my own past that any attempt to analyze it objectively approaches impossible. So I'm both in admiration of and confused by this post's existence.

With that, Justin's comment is all the more foreign. These kids never had any intention of trying to be popular until after it started happening. For the songwriter, the songs were written for himself and his friends, and anyone more than that caring at all was bonus. Each emotional wave that smacked him in the face due to life-sized fail was caught in a song, with all of the emotion still turned up to full blast, often obscuring the story, even from the writers own subjective perspective. The unintentional goal was depth--not breadth--of relatability. As a result, the bottom line is if you didn't live it, you're not supposed to get it.

I think Nirvana ushered in a new mini-revolution for younger kids, and punk (under the lead of Green Day) subsequently welled up a bit more into the everyday world. It brought the ideals of unity slightly more into the popular world, and it also opened up the opportunity to be musicians to a whole new tier of kids. You didn't have to be a great singer or guitarist to be famous anymore; you just had to strike the right emotional chord with enough people.

For kids like Matt Pryor, whether said chord was presented with artistic clarity or musical self-consistency was not terribly relevant; in fact, a little bit of crypticness due to bad wording or incomplete thoughts was even "cool" in a way. We were a sub-generation of kids full of more emotion than we could handle and +/- 30 cents pitch. It didn't matter if it sounded off-key or hollow. We loved it, because it was true, and because we could all sing and play along.