Having It All
by Chad Jewett
Youth In Youth, the 2012 album from Ohio quartet Annabel, remains the definitive document of contemporary emo. Thoughtful about relationships, aging, art, commerce, and matters of privilege and expectation, the LP managed to be a treatise on quarter-life crisis even if it wasn’t explicitly designed as a narrative. It didn’t unfold according to ideas and plans; instead, it simply embodied them. Having It All, the band’s newest record and their return to Tiny Engines Records, shares a lot of that earlier album’s concerns, especially its doubts about how the band’s post-graduate generation of artists is supposed to live in an American era without roadmaps, defined by eroding job markets and quicksand college debt. If anything, Having It All — which like its predecessor, is defined by bursting guitar-pop and subtle-yet-striking melody – seems even more troubled about what life should look like once we really start to grow up. The album’s title unfolds like a barbed piece of irony – even if the middle-class fantasia of suburban comfort stamped dreamily onto the cover of Youth in Youth somehow comes true, you’ll find yourself missing something eventually.
If Youth in Youth seemed to sweep across its topics with the one-at-a-time thoroughness of a panoramic set of photos, then Having It All is a bit more diffuse, which makes its central anxieties that much more gripping. The songs here don’t come in the wide-open Pet Sounds shapes of earlier achievements like “Young American” or “The Dept. Of Mutual Appreciation”. Instead, like album-opener (and highlight) “Another Day, Another Vitamin” or first single “Everything” they slowly blossom out like dye in water. Ben Hendricks‘ flexible, keen tunefulness remains – the perfect, central melody of “Another Day”, for instance, is at once breezily catchy and understatedly complex – and the band still has a knack for inserting oblique angles into otherwise forward-sprinting pop songs (take the Saves The Day-esque pivots on the opening verse of “The Fortunate Ones” or Scott Moses’ sing-songy bass, adding texture to the rolling “Ex-Introvert”). Indeed, the album’s opening triad – “Another Day, Another Vitamin”, “The Forunate Ones”, “If Only” – rank among some of the band’s best work, the latter buoyed by another gorgeous melody from Hendricks and an embrace of open space that is welcome on an album that is markedly denser than Youth.
It’s that density that makes Having It All a complicated piece of work. The precedent here might be Futures, the 2004 full-length from Jimmy Eat World and that band’s follow-up to 2001’s world-conquering Bleed American. Like Futures, Having It All has its share of hooks and ideas, and perhaps even a production style with a more tangible point-of-view than its more spirited predecessor. The stereo mix that bifurcates the fuzzed guitar and syncopated, trotting drums at the start of “The Fortunate Ones”; the sighing airiness of “For Years And Years” (the LP’s least essential song but one of its most interesting productions); the swath of organ that burbles in “On The Importance Of Disappointment” and “Ex-Introvert” – these are choices that reveal the benefit of working in registers besides the pop grandness of Youth. Without the incentives of “bigger”, Annabel instead offer emo with a certain auturist sense of design. The band continues to be one of the few in its milieu that seems to care about making headphone albums.
But, like Futures, Having It All seemingly tasks itself with the considerable challenge of making vivacious music about world-weariness (and wariness) – telling wide-awake stories about tired people. It’s why the gossamer stillness of “Days In Between”, while lovely, feels less like a graceful denouement from the bright rush of the album’s first ten minutes and more like a sudden, anxious dropping of the stomach. The same goes for the song’s matching mood-piece, “How To: A Self-Help Guide”, which pulls the touch task of following the dashing power-pop of “Everything” and “Ex-Introvert”. Luckily, for an album seemingly devoted to anxiety, self-doubt, and ever-changing minds, these valleys make good narrative sense. But they also betray just how much higher the elevation is around them.
Ultimately, there are a lot of archetypes that fit Having It All – “difficult follow up” chief among them. Where past Annabel records bounded with giddy energy, most of this one moves at a deliberate pace, more attentive to texture than acceleration. It’s a document with a lot on its mind, and it behaves that way — which might in fact be the most successful thing about it. It’s no easy feat to craft an LP that can’t get out of its own head but also manages to get stuck in yours. Tackling problems that only seem to get scarier with a seriousness that exceeds even the most ruminative stretches of Youth in Youth, Annabel have achieved something seriously impressive by making a challenging, cerebral grower of a pop record out of the stuff that keeps us up at night.