The Emo Roundup
I’m especially excited about the 7 songs on "From Under the Cork Tree." They show Fall Out Boy expanding their horizons, in particular on "Dance Dance," which mixes hardcore-influenced fast parts with a sort of melodrama reminiscent of My Chemical Romance's plundering of classic musical theater. "Our Lawyer Made Us Change The Name Of This Song So We Wouldn't Get Sued" is also a new direction for them. It revolves around a bouncy mid-tempo rock riff that stays catchy without relying on typical pop-punk/emo tropes. The latter song and "Champagne For My Real Friends, Real Pain For My Sham Friends" (some of these song titles are pure genius) both have lyrics that discuss Fall Out Boy’s recent surge in popularity. Evidently, these former hardcore kids are not too sure how they feel about all of that. They don’t dwell on it too much, though, preferring to focus on their tried-and-true themes of alienation and romantic loss. "A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More Touch Me" is just as quintessential of a breakup song as anything off "Take This To Your Grave", and features another of their many classic choruses: "I don’t blame you for being you, but you can’t blame me for hating it." We’ve all been there... or, at least, I sure have.
The acoustic EP features a new version of "Take This To Your Grave"’s big single, "Grand Theft Autumn", three new songs, and what has to be the millionth cover version of Joy Division’s "Love Will Tear Us Apart." It’s a decent record, but on the whole it’s a bit thin. I’m glad I didn’t shell out the ten bucks Best Buy wanted for it. At this point, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" has moved beyond cult classic into the realm of cliche, and no cover version could possibly shed any new light on this old chestnut. If they were going to do a new wave cover in order to show how down with the 80s they are, a suspect move in and of itself, it would have been nice to see that they'd put a bit of thought into it, instead of jumping for what is probably the most obvious choice possible. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that covering an 80s night staple like "Love Will Tear Us Apart" does more to make it look like Fall Out Boy don't know their shit where the 80s are concerned, which I can't imagine was the intention.
However, now, with Further Seems Forever’s "Hide Nothing," Jon Bunch has redeemed the legacy of Sensefield. More than anything, it was his voice that was the strongest identifying mark of Sensefield’s sound, and the combination of that voice with Further Seems Forever’s melodic rock songs brings back memories of Sensefield as they were before the disastrous major label affair. It's not just the memories that make this album work, either–these songs have more than enough merit to justify listening to them even if you don't care about Sensefield at all. From the powerful midtempo opener "Light Up Ahead" to the slow, quiet "All Rise" and the more upbeat tracks like "Someone You Know" and "Bleed", there’s not a weak moment here. The only real disappointment is that the album, at 28 minutes, is so short.
One interesting factor of Jon Bunch singing for Further Seems Forever is that it ends the mystery of his religious affiliation. Sensefield were never openly Christian, but their lyrics hinted at references to a higher power. Bunch would even use the word "lord" as an interjection upon occasion. When asked direct questions about religious beliefs during interviews, the members of Sensefield, Bunch in particular, would give evasive answers that didn’t really shed any light on the subject. That said, Further Seems Forever have never hidden the fact that they are Christian, and there are a few songs on this album where the subject shows up in the words. I know a lot of people who don’t hold these beliefs get uncomfortable with bands that are open about religious affiliations, fearing that they will be "preached to." Luckily for those people, Jon Bunch and Further Seems Forever are not from the "believe as we do or burn in hell" school of things. In the closing track, "For All We Know", when Bunch sings, "These days are numbered, but things will get better, I hope," it doesn’t feel like they’re pushing anything on anyone. It gives more of a sense that they’re wishing us all the best, that their religious beliefs lead them to want happiness and peace for everyone who might be hearing the song. I would think we could all use a bit of that, regardless of what god we may or may not believe in.
Compared to Further Seems Forever’s well-wishes for humanity, the lyrical topic on the new Armor For Sleep album is quite a bit darker. The record, entitled "What To Do When You Are Dead," is a concept album–what might have been called a "rock opera" at one time. In the first song, "Car Underwater", the narrator has found himself, as the title suggests, trapped in a car under water. It’s one of the more masochistic methods of suicide I’ve ever heard of, but he confirms that it was intentional in his mention of having left a note for his ex-girlfriend. At the end of the song, he drowns. And for the remaining ten songs on the album, he’s dead. In the next song, "The Truth About Heaven", he’s returned to wander the earth as a ghost, because he can’t stand to be in heaven without the girl he's left behind. Over the course of the album, he follows her around as she continues to live her life. At first he thinks that they will reunite in the afterlife once she dies, but by the end of the record he has come to realize that though she is grief-stricken by his death, in time she will overcome it, move on with her life, and fall in love again–with someone alive. The album ends with no peace, no closure, just bitterness and recriminations.
It’d be easy to see this album and its lyrics as reinforcing many of the things people say about the inability of emo’s teenage male fans to get outside of their own egocentric perspective and understand the women they fall in love with as human beings, rather than objectifying them. However, this analysis falls apart under deeper examination. While this album does deal with these tendencies, it in no way constitutes an endorsement of them.
The argument could be made that boys who do this in order to inflict guilt and grief upon girls that dumped them are doing the ultimate in objectifying women. Ignoring the fact that this person doesn’t deserve to feel these horrible things, and further ignoring that in the end it is their choice whether they remain miserable forever or find a way to move beyond their current pain of loss, they treat the women as agents of evil who have wounded them and deserve to pay for it. And of course, in doing so, said boys ignore the fact that these girls are just people too–teenage people, in fact, who are still figuring out how to make their way in the world, just like the boys. The argument that this entire train of thought is essentially sexist has plenty of merit, and if one was to take "What To Do When You Are Dead" as an endorsement of this train of thought, then one could call the album sexist.
But that’s not what’s going on here, at all. "Car Underwater" presents the previously described male train of thought without comment, and if this song were taken by itself, it would seem to endorse that train of thought. However, as the album continues, Armor For Sleep analyzes how it would feel for a boy who thinks that way to be able to see the days that followed his dramatic action. At points during the album, he begs the girl to respond to him, to say something, to touch him... invariably, he receives no response. By the next to last song, he’s attempting to convince her of his own importance in her life. "I’ve got this feeling that I was put here for you," he says, but from the listener’s perspective it’s obvious that it’s himself he’s trying to convince. In the final song, "The End of a Fraud," he’s figured it out: "When I left, you all stayed the same." He's horrified to realize this, and departs for some other form of afterlife full of bitterness. In his unflinching portrayal of this melodramatic emo kid, vocalist Brian Jorgeson demonstrates a lesson that kids like that who sit around contemplating suicide after a breakup often ignore: the lesson that life goes on with or without you. Instead of relying on the typical "people care about you" approach, Jorgeson points out the depressing but true flip side of it all–if you do commit suicide, you can convince yourself that the people who wronged you will realize what they did wrong, and that they will never recover from the loss, but the truth is that, in time, people will get over it and go on without you. With "What To Do When You Are Dead", Armor For Sleep have created an anti-suicide message that may just be more persuasive than any amount of coming out and saying, "Don’t do it."
Of course, if these lyrics were all they had to offer, this album would be interesting as a sociological document, but not as an actual piece of music. However, the music more than stands on its own. Unlike their first album, which I found rather generic, "What To Do When You Are Dead" is immediately impressive. The production is excellent, indicating care and attention to detail; the guitars are clear and powerful, and the drumming is flawless–crisp without a hint of studio trickery. Creative touches such as the strings that build underneath heavy guitars at the climax of "Awkward Last Words" and the drum machines, layered guitars, and phasing on "Basement Ghost Singing", an atmospheric song that provides the album’s most chilling moment, are the sort of thing one seldom sees on typical emo records these days. Even the songs that do fit a more typical pattern, such as "Stay On the Ground" and "Car Underwater", are well-constructed enough to stand above the average. Rather than playing it safe and creating something guaranteed to sell, Armor For Sleep take risks both lyrically and musically, and they all pay off.