“Grow Up, Dude”: Memory, Maturity, and Modern Emo
by Chad Jewett
This is not an emo “think piece.” It hasn’t taken much digging to spot the consternation, even frustration, coming from fans of emo and post-hardcore music at the tone of some writing on this movement. Some of this anxiety centers around the term “revival,” which seems to posit that emo music disappeared and came back (as Washed Up Emo’s Tom Mullen would put it, “You just stopped paying attention”) – a reading that obviously, though likely unintentionally, gives short shrift to bands that were working in this aesthetic when no one was interested. But what I think is needed (and, if you’re looking in the right places, is happening) is some criticism devoted to this music that doesn’t just marvel at its existence – engaged writing and thought on emo, and the new wave of energy surrounding it; because there are subtle movements, trends, issues in this post-post-hardcore moment that are fascinating, promising, even troubling. For the purposes of this article, what I find most salient about this seemingly massive reinvestment in emo is the selectivity in the movement’s memory – the care with which bands of the last few years are choosing from the sounds of 1996 (or so). There has been a cognitive dissonance in what I’d call the emo renaissance (a term I find more fair and accurate), a gap of generation and memory. In some ways it makes sense that the stuff contemporary bands have hung on to from emo’s original creative high water, the mid to late 1990s, is the more particular, even difficult, dispatches from that era – namely, the self-conscious, spindly aesthetic of the Kinsella brothers and the more idiosyncratic Midwestern bands. Indeed, if Jim from The Get Up Kids once rued his band’s part in paving the road for some of the more risible bands of the 2000s (groups with ugly streaks of both misogyny and mendacity), then it would seem that current bands, who were probably more likely watching Cartoon Network in their living room than The Jazz June at their local VFW, seem to be choosing their musical touchstones carefully. No one wants to be Nero fiddling octave chords, necessitating another gargantuan effort of genre rehabilitation in 2025.
This is the first generation of bands that seems ready to really invest in emo as a serious identifier (it’s eye opening to hear how many “Golden Era” artists hedge on the term “emo” on the aforementioned Washed Up Emo podcast). And what that term means is being curated very carefully. Some of that anxiety might explain the adolescent streak that has defined this reiteration until very, very recently. That bands like American Football, Joan of Arc, Colossal, Pele, or later groups like Algernon Cadwallader, were the discographies around which recent re-discoveries of this sound occurred makes sense. These are bands that offered a version of emo that was legible yet unique enough to appeal to an instinct of ownership, originality, and taste that so many music fans cultivate. There was never a time in the 2010s when you couldn’t find Taking Back Sunday or Saves The Day in any Best Buy or downtown middle-capacity venue. But there were years where you didn’t hear any mention of Knapsack or Kind Of Like Spitting. These bands, who were free of what made the emo-boom bands of the mid-2000s ultimately hard to like, offered a route through which to rehabilitate what emo was, what it sounded like, and what it could mean. A record like American Football became a sort of secret code or point of re-entry. The center of the sound’s gravity moved to the left, toward more difficult constructions and less over-loaded histories. Ultimately, you could like Braid or Cap’n Jazz or Texas Is The Reason or Colossal baggage free. But there’s a sneaky problem in how this renewed investment in this sound and scene became so wound in a very specific, limited archive.
Take a record like Fairweather’s Lusitania: a fraught, complex, even difficult album that was nonetheless quite rewarding in a way that the gold-rush emo albums released around it couldn’t touch. Tell All Your Friends theoretically still holds up, but only in the manner that any good pop punk record would. It’s certainly less interesting a decade later, and certainly doesn’t speak to me the way Lusitiana does. Yet Lusitania lacks many of the signposts discussed above, and has seemingly gotten left behind in the process; no one talks about it as much as we all should (in 2003 it was an eye-opening record), even though there are few better examples of bands growing into something brilliant. The same goes for The Gloria Record, or The Anniversary. I’m of course speaking in broad terms, and it’s quite likely that you adore these bands and their records, and this version of events rings untrue. There are certainly bands nowadays with some of all of these bands in their DNA (The World Is… for instance). But it would also be hard to deny that the sound of a certain swath of post-hardcore music from a generation ago has constituted the lion’s share of this current re-investment. Indeed, the tongue-in-cheek use of the word “twinkle,” which corresponded with the rise of many of the most visible and well-regarded contemporary emo bands speaks volumes about how we identify this aesthetic and its aural field in 2014. Bands are less afraid than ever to call their music emo, but the fact that that word, in its contemporary sense, seems to mainly designate “twinkly,” slightly math-y arpeggios and odd time signatures might explain why it’s “safe” to use the word – no one is mistaking this version of “emo” for the version that made the term distasteful to, say, The Get Up Kids at the end of their original run.
But some of that limited allegiance to a very specific, often very young aesthetic we see in recent emo ironically risks the frivolity of lackluster mid-2000s bands, even if the sound and aesthetic being chased – thorny, complex, opaque, even brainy – is seemingly designed to stand antithetically to that “version” of emo. The knotty originality of Analphabetapolothology could serve as a great unspoken agreement about what was worth saving about emo’s first great years. But the literalism that accompanied that understanding, of what was worth keeping about emo, left out records that embraced a different kind of insight, and innovation. Lusitania is a difficult, compelling record that rewards repeat listens, but it doesn’t broadcast an alternate emo route the way those early Kinsella brothers records do. In other words, a lot of near-contemporary bands (perhaps 2011-2013) have seemingly mixed relationships with “maturity.” There has been a ground swell of bands chasing a complicated, cerebral, idiosyncratic sound, but who have also settled for the “screw it, whatever” content of a band (Cap’n Jazz) whose authors grew up and out of that frame and were in junior high during its inception. Indeed, while the sound of that scene’s next big statement, American Football, is everywhere, Mike Kinsella’s almost startling economy of narrative, his incisive ability to crystalize the emotional lives of young people, hasn’t quite carried over in the same way. One can’t help but notice that sticking to an incomplete version of that script might mean sticking to a very young, limited worldview that will end up being as restricted as the violent, angry, frequently-misogynist emptiness of the bands that made it hard to invest in emo in the mid aughts. In wanting to reclaim post-hardcore from what made it intolerable in lets say, 2005, there have been a lot of wheels spinning in what it made it fresh in 1995, with no ideas as to how to let it age out of those tasteful but ultimately safe Kinsella/Chicago/Midwest templates. That twinkly, adolescent chaos worked for rallying back around a workable version of emo’s past, but the question becomes, how do these bands turn it into the movement’s future?
Something to keep in mind is the way in which several of the most warmly-regarded bands of emo’s first great era were roundly rejected for coloring outside the lines. Somewhere around the early 2000s Saves The Day, The Promise Ring, and The Get Up Kids all released “grown up” records. For Saves The Day it was In Reverie, a logical progression from the high-water mark of Stay What You Are (a modern classic that even came in for its share of rejection for leaving behind some of the more adolescent ideas of Through Being Cool) that saw more impressionist lyrics, more classicist chords (The Beatles were obviously a touchstone), and a more comfortable singing style for Chris Conley. All appearances pointed to the band’s fan base utterly losing it. Saves The Day’s efforts to grow what their band could be, using jazz chords over the same brawny punk beats, losing some of the more violent daydreams of Through Being Cool for something more elliptical, were seemingly rejected so forcefully that by the time the band toured with Taking Back Sunday later that year (2003) they were playing only two or three songs from In Reverie, instead sticking to songs from the previous two records. When Sound The Alarm was released two years later it sounded almost desperately “punk,” an apparent attempt to wipe In Reverie from memory. That Eben D’Amico, the band’s bass player and the genius of In Reverie’s supple rhythm section had left the band before the release of Sound The Alarm spoke volumes. The same narrative applies for The Get Up Kids and 2001’s On A Wire, an attempt to stretch out the more somber moments of Something To Write Home About into wide-open spans of alt-country-esque rumination. The record was utterly beautiful, the sound of a band wholly on the same page, and featuring pop songs that were only a few beats-per-minute behind “Holiday” or “Ten Minutes.” Yet the release results were strikingly similar to what would befall In Reverie. The record was loudly disliked (that the early 2000’s brought the crest of message board criticism as emo bands stretched their wings is an interesting confluence), and the band’s follow up, The Guilt Show, sounded like an exhausted attempt to patch things up with more 1999-era octave chords and Moog frills. The Promise Ring’s final album, Wood/Water (or Woodwater) also met with almost hyperbolic fan dislike, and seemingly for similar reasons. The 2002 album was a bit slower, a bit more folk-tinged and ruminative instead of exaggeratedly expressionist. Songs like “Size Of Your Life,” despite being almost embarrassingly generous in terms of melody and grace, were seemingly falling on deaf ears still tuned to Electric Pink and Nothing Feels Good. Simply put, none of these bands were allowed to grow up or grow out. What had befallen Jawbreaker after Dear You – namely, consternation and distrust from fan’s averse to sonic change – had laid in waiting for Jawbreaker’s progeny.
The mirror image of this early-2000s trilogy of rejection is the fact that the other tent-pole bands of the era all broke up before they could get to these maturing sounds. Braid, American Football, The Anniversary, Colossal, Boy’s Life, Christie Front Drive, Cap’n Jazz, Texas Is The Reason, Mineral – all folded before they even had the chance to fall into the trap that swallowed up The Promise Ring and Saves The Day. Besides In Reverie, On A Wire, and Wood/Water, all of which have their defenders (including me), the one thing bands have visibly been missing are guidelines for how to grow up. It’s no accident that a group like Rancid could write a follow up like Life Won’t Wait — because they had copies of Sandinista!. But today’s emo/post-hardcore band’s have had the unenviable task of “growing up” without many successful examples in the shared past of this music. The are some: Mike Kinsella essentially grew American Football with his own life changes by offering a more folk-tinged version of that aesthetic in Owen; three-quarters of Braid became Hey Mercedes, a band more willing to engage with pop song-craft and a slightly more spacious sound. Joan of Arc simply got weirder and more idiosyncratic, winding up with fans who likely care little for or about Cap’n Jazz but who find his artistic provocations engaging. But you also get the sense that these bands were liked but never loved (at least by most).
But despite this incomplete archive, and unfortunate cautionary tales in the examples of On A Wire and Wood/Water, the last two years have seen bands pushing this sound and themselves. You Blew It’s 2012 album, Grow Up, Dude was an easily-liked dispatch of strum-and-shout, but I doubt many anticipated the risks and big steps taken on their recent follow up, Keep Doing What You’re Doing. Keep Doing offered a gentle growth of that sound, an album whose narratives ended up devoted to more adult angsts and whose aesthetic found a new way of looking at Midwestern arpeggio sparkle by pairing it with a Walkmen-like twilight punk groove. Worcester’s The Hotelier found innovation in the conceptual through-lines of its upcoming album Home Like NoPlace Is There, focusing on narrative where a lot of recent emo records have put all their chips on the math-y interplay of spiraling guitars and odd-timed rhythm. The band also seems to have found a way to integrate folk ideas from a different angle, letting in the organic warmth of The Weakerthans, so that the album feels almost like a louder twin to something like On A Wire, even if it’s rarely quieter than Something To Write Home About. The World Is A Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, the Connecticut post-emo collective that largely seemed to be the eye of this storm, pushed itself on 2013’s Whenever, If Ever by embracing post-rock spaciousness, heavy laces of synthesizer (the most promising addition) and horns, and a commitment to studiously un-steady song structure. For a band whose sing-along interludes quickly calcified into a trope for other bands, Whenever was seemingly singularly devoted to finding new contexts for their signature sounds, as if the band put everything together first, then broke it into pieces, offering easily-liked prog-emo that was also challenging in its weirdness. Intersections, the newest album from Into It. Over It., used the rhythmic spaces opened by its spiraling, Chicago math-emo aesthetic as pockets for clever production flourishes and incisive story-telling. Foxing re-centered this sound around mood and rhythm, injecting Mineral-like theatricality with modern R&B motion and glitchy post-rock angularity, all spiked with doses of Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens, both artists closer to emo than you’d first think. There are other examples: the warm, compelling storytelling of Jess Tancred’s eponymous debut, the pop-savant generosity of Annabel’s Youth In Youth, the emotional-truth-at-all-costs economy of Allison Weiss’s Say What You Mean, the jazz-like twinkle-overdrive of Two Knights debut 12”. Little Big League’s These Are Good People somehow managed to be an heir to both The Execution of All Things and On A Wire, a tour-de-force of unassuming storytelling and show-stopping melody. Even the more stalwart heavy registers of post-hardcore received 2013 makeovers from State Faults and Touché Amoré.
This is all to say that perhaps the most exciting thing about young, bright, committed songwriters finding inspiration in a genre’s past, is that so many of these bands are learning the right lessons and ignoring the wrong ones. Keep Doing What You’re Doing might not be as off-beat as In Reverie, but you can’t help but be impressed by how You Blew It! found a song like “Regional Dialect” in them. Home Like NoPlace Is There never rips the band-aid off with something as stark as “Overdue,” but the record nevertheless finds most of its energy in searching out room for new sounds, new ideas, new color schemes. You can still hear how many plays “Never Meant” or “Little League” are getting on these bands’ communal tour iPod, but you also get the sense that the thing might be on shuffle. So many new sounds are starting to stick to those old touchstones and starting to blur and warp what used to be a pretty straight line. In 2012 You Blew It! told themselves to “Grow Up, Dude.” In 2014, it seems more like they were just putting everyone else on notice.