Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now.
Anniversary Records: The Get Up Kids’ Guilt Show
by Chad Jewett
The mid-2000s were a tough stretch for emo’s leading lights. Saves The Day released In Reverie (2003), an album that re-oriented their crisp, “Lifetime + Archers of Loaf” aesthetic into something more like “The Zombies with a dash of Pinkerton” — and were roundly rejected. The band’s follow-up, Sound The Alarm, sounded desperately “punk,” as if attempting to recapture every finicky fan who felt betrayed by the dearth of “Rocks Tonic Juice Magic” sequels on In Reverie and Stay What You Are. At this point Sound The Alarm is depressing mainly for the palpable step back it constitutes after the thrilling abstract expressionism of its predecessor. The Promise Ring called it quits after a Sisyphean year of playing the twilit introspection of Wood/Water in front of smaller versions of Warped Tour crowds. Jimmy Eat World followed up your high school baseball team’s favorite post-hardcore album with the darker, more introverted Futures, basically accepting the sustainable lifestyle downgrade that followed, as if they were looking to get the ebb over with. Brand New followed a similar pattern with 2006’s lush yet terrifying The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, significantly pushing back against their own pop instincts (see: Deja Entendu), with the added benefit of accidentally recording a cult classic whose willingness to trace personal demons rather than vilify women made it an almost solitary buoy in the god-awful lull between 2003 and 2009.
The Get Up Kids’ 2004 album Guilt Show is an altogether trickier case. In some ways, it’s obvious that the band was licking its wounds after On A Wire, a gorgeous tone poem of alt-country rumination and languorous emo melodicism, that, like In Reverie and Wood/Water, was received like a betrayal (I’ve heard utterly bizarre stories of fans throwing the cd out of car windows upon first listen, which is about a hundred times more depressing than the gloomiest song on On A Wire), despite being near-perfect. Like Saves The Day, the “return-to-form” brightness and pop-focused athleticism of Guilt Show felt, at the time, like a white flag being waved to audiences that now determined how easily the band could support their families. Indeed, album opener “Man of Conviction” begins with electric buzzes and amp squawks before bursting into a Something To Write Home About-style sprint (indeed, nothing in the band’s oeuvre sounds more like a “Four Minute Mile” than this) whose pop-punk upward arc seemed to recall “Holiday” in earnest. Second track “The One You Want” similarly felt like a reinvestment in the band’s late 90s watersheds, bouncing like a more mannered “I’m A Loner Dottie, A Rebel…” or “Anne Arbour.” You can play this game with any of the quicker, hook-first songs on Guilt Show, mostly because they’re the songs that only appeared intermittently on On A Wire (though I’ll take “Stay Gone” and “High As The Moon” over just about everything in the band’s catalogue, thanks). The fact that, for the record’s first three quarters, the band only slows down or spreads out in favor of mid-tempo breathers that recalled “The Company Dime” — vaguely mixed-key cool-downs that felt more like respites than challenges – speaks volumes. Compare a song like “Sick In Her Skin” from Guilt Show to On A Wire’s barbed slow-core haunt “Grunge Pig” and immediately sense the difference; the way the former amiably trickles out; the way the latter is full of spooky dulcet tones closer to Neko Case than Mineral.
And yet, unlike Sound The Alarm, these songs captivate, despite the duress under which they were likely written. For all that “Man of Conviction” or “Wouldn’t Believe It” feel like security-blanket returns to the Promise Ring + Moog fizz of Something To Write Home About, they’re also beautifully written pop songs whose lilting melodies carry more of On A Wire’s autumn tinge than you might expect. On “Wouldn’t Believe It” Matt Pryor lets the earth-toned imagery of lines like “Rows of houses on forever / What the neighbors never know” hang out over rippling midwestern Telecaster reeds until the whole thing exudes an unbelievable warmth, fusing the rustic mood-music of On A Wire to the emo classicism of Red Letter Day. “Holy Roman” and “Never Be Alone” light-heartedly stomp and curl like “Up On The Roof,” but those halos of piano and those wide-open choruses slowly push the songs’ centers of gravity into the Beatle-esque adult pop of Jets To Brazil, another band whose growing up was received as betrayal. When “Never Be Alone” steals brief interludes in the moody minor key backyards of On A Wire you get the sense that The Get Up Kids were playing a game of keep-away, always dosing the version of themselves they were forced back into with the expansiveness that showed just how far their potential spanned. The trajectory of Guilt Show’s pop songs, ten years later, sounds a lot more like Something To Write Home About driving through On A Wire’s neighborhood, and a lot less like the band fleeing the latter for the former.
The album’s denouement lays its weight on that trailing foot, resting squarely in the bronzed gloom of On A Wire. “Sympathy” plays like the twilight fade from elevated emo skylarking to pensive, midnight anxiety, pairing its up-tempo major key to the kind of stretched, night-shade guitar dappling “Overdue” and “Walking On A Wire.” The closing triad of “The Dark Night Of The Soul,” “Is There A Way Out,” and “Conversation” push this growing unease into slower tempos, more ambivalent melodies, heavier themes. “The Dark Night Of The Soul” unfolds its minor key dispatches across skitters of drum machine and free-form electric glitch. “Is There A Way Out” is similarly baroque, keeping the programming and overcast progression and stretching out to roughly the length of the album’s opening three songs combined. “Conversation” tweaks the album’s balancing act one last time, opening with heavy post-hardcore tempest before quickly cooking down into another pleasant mid-tempo pop song. But rather than come as a relief, “Conversation” keeps up that see-saw, sounding like Cursive one minute and Wilco the next, utterly refusing to be anything other than inscrutable. The song ends with a rave-up of keys, strings, and high-density drums, a tangled knot of what we once took The Get Up Kids to be, except now all oblique angles and jabbing elbows.
Ultimately, Guilt Show plays like another stab at difficulty, masquerading as a “back to basics” return. Less bleak and less beautifully coherent than On A Wire (which, mark my words, will eventually have its day in the sun), the album is nevertheless a fascinating dispatch of sought-out confusion. By record’s end, earlier hints of “good-old-days” sunshine become hard to swallow, tasting instead like utterly mixed feelings. The Get Up Kids were breaking up as they recorded the album, clearly exhausted by the travail of figuring out which version of themselves they could live with. For a while it seemed there wasn’t one. The band returned in 2011 with There Are Rules, a similarly restless collage of an album that, three years later, still feels utterly difficult to place. How many albums can we really say that about? At some point The Get Up Kids moved from the utter comfort of Something To Write Home About, an album so easily-liked that anything else risked being hated, to the nagging questions of Guilt Show and everything after. Somehow, the band found their version of sustainability on a fault-line of shifting grounds. Guilt Show is where the cracks started forming, and its where The Get Up Kids started to figure out how to make a virtue of that.