Taking Back Sunday are new again.

I had cause to be nervous about the new Taking Back Sunday album, and it's a cause that I've had before. For the third time in four albums, they've had a major lineup change, and just as in previous cases, I was worried that this change would ruin their sound. Previously, after their excellent first album, "Tell All Your Friends," a rift between main vocalist Adam Lazzara and guitarist/second vocalist John Nolan led Noland and bassist Shaun Cooper to quit and start their own group, Straylight Run. Internet rumors led me to think that Nolan was the injured party in the split, and that Lazzara was the one who acted like a dick and caused the whole thing. And you can read all about my feelings at the time by scrolling all the way back to this blog's very first post, from five years ago. Funny how that works, isn't it? Anyway, Nolan's essential role in the band was filled by former Breaking Pangaea guitarist Fred Mascherino, and TBS went on to make what is still my favorite album by them, "Where You Want To Be." So at least in that case, I needn't have worried.

But now, two albums later, previous saving grace Mascherino has left the band. This felt like real cause for worry. Could they possibly get lucky twice? Or, really, three times? After all, on their out of print and little-heard self-titled debut EP, their lineup had been completely different even from that of "Tell All Your Friends." Original vocalist Antonio Longo sang on that EP, and on the first of two sessions, the backing vocalist role had been filled by bassist Jesse Lacey. If you think you recognize that name, you're right--he left TBS after recording only two songs with them in order to front the band Brand New, with whom he's had a successful career that lasts even to this very day. His leaving prompted the original saving-grace arrival to Taking Back Sunday, that of Adam Lazzara, originally the band's bassist and backing vocalist. After that first EP, when Longo left the band, Lazzara switched to lead vocals and Nolan took the backing vocal role. So really, being able to replace Mascherino on backing vocals would constitute being lucky a good bit more than twice.

Maybe they realized they'd pushed their luck to the breaking point, and that's why new second guitarist Matthew Fazzi seems not to sing at all on TBS's aptly named fourth album, "New Again." There are a few instances of backing vocals on the album, though generally only on the choruses of songs, and even then they are mixed far in the background and appear to just be additional tracks of Lazzara rather than anyone else. Maybe this just means that Fazzi joined the band too late to be written into the songs from this album, but regardless, the loss of a vocal foil for Lazzara changes the Taking Back Sunday sound in very significant ways. A lot of what made the best songs on their previous albums so great was that vocal interplay, as on "There's No 'I' In Team," from "Tell All Your Friends," in which John Nolan's vocals constitute the other half of a conversation/argument with Lazzara's vocals, or on "A Decade Under The Influence," from "Where You Want To Be," in which Adam Lazzara narrated an uncomfortable car ride while Fred Mascherino, often singing at the same time as Lazzara, gave voice to Lazzara's unexpressed feelings ("I've got a bad feeling about this").

The closest "New Again" comes to this sort of vocal interplay is on "Swing," which was the first song on the album to really catch my attention. During the verses of the song, as Lazzara sings his lead vocals, a low, quiet backing vocal repeats the phrase "How long," which Lazzara responds to: "...before I'm just a memory? ...before you can't remember me?" I wish the backing vocals weren't mixed so low, but I'll take what I can get, and they work well the way they're used. The chorus is very effective too. Lazzara sings of a frustrating relationship, in which he, the hopeless romantic that's always willing to take the risk, can't get the object of his affections to take the chance on romance. He urges her to go for it, but phrases the taking of the risk in the form of a punch: "Lover, lover on the fence, bat your eyes, ball your fist and swing." As he reaches the final word, multiple backing vocals swirl around him, repeating "swing" several times in different harmonic variations. It's a gorgeous sound, and probably the single moment on this album that most closely resembles the best parts of previous TBS albums. I'm also a big fan of the second half of the chorus, in which Lazzara sings, "Lover, lover, tell me this: passion over consequence--when did the latter take the lead?" With this perfectly turned phrase, Lazzara encapsulates the entire dilemma that the song revolves around, and makes clear that the cautious path has so much less to offer than the risk of romance.

"Swing" is without a doubt the best song on this album, and it attains a level of greatness that is, if not equivalent to, at least very close to the brilliance of the first three songs on "Where You Want To Be" (for my money, the best 10 minutes of Taking Back Sunday's recorded history). There are a couple of other songs on this album that also reach that level. "Summer, Man," which also features at least limited use of backing vocals (mostly delivering wordless croons), has a chorus just as catchy as that of "Swing." Over a sad, wistful minor-chord progression, Lazzara sings, "The summer is over and I doubt that I'll be seeing you around." This song, about the end of a friendship, seems to refer to Fred Mascherino's less-than-amicable departure from TBS. "Prove to the world what you already proved--that you just couldn't do it on your own," Lazzara sings, referring, one assumes, to Mascherino's solo project, which won't be as good as the next TBS record. And actually, I've heard that The Color Fred is pretty bad, but I guess I should listen for myself before I judge. Truth is, though, I don't like even thinking about this inter-band conflicts. I didn't want to have to worry about taking sides back when "Where You Want To Be" came out; I just wanted to hear more good records from a band that I'd loved. I feel the same way now. The fact that Fred Mascherino was just as essential ingredient to earlier TBS greatness leaves me with equally warm feelings for him and Lazzara. Fortunately, "Summer, Man" doesn't force me to even worry about all of this if I don't want to. It's a catchy song with exactly the sort of melancholy undertone that I like in my modern pop-emo, the stuff that reflects my own constantly roiling emotional sensibility. As I said back in that first post, I'm still feeling the emotional shocks of my day to day life every bit as intensely as I did back when I was 15, so if that leads me to love music that's typically for teenagers, then so be it. Taking Back Sunday is really good at being music for emotionally disturbed teenagers like me, which is why I love them.

Getting back to "New Again," there's one more shining light of brilliance on this album, and that is its closing track, "Everything Must Go." Taking Back Sunday haven't given any of their albums really powerful closing statements since "Tell All Your Friends," which ended with John Nolan singing over and over the opening line from Johnny Cash's "Understand Your Man" ("Don't call my name out your window, I'm leaving") as Lazzara wailed "I'm sick of writing every song about you." That moment still has the power to reduce me to tears if I'm not feeling particularly stable (and lately, I never am). The two albums from the Mascherino era, though, were stronger on beginnings than endings, and neither "Slowdance On The Inside" nor "I'll Let You Live" ever struck me as particularly strong tracks.

"Everything Must Go" is a welcome change from this trend. It's on the slower side of things for Taking Back Sunday, but avoids their tendency towards balladry, instead showcasing their heaviest chorus since "Bonus Mosh Part II," from "Where You Want To Be" (part of that best 10 minutes of their career that I mentioned earlier). The lyrics are both a narration of and an emotional reaction to the breaking off of Adam Lazzara's engagement with Eisley guitarist Chauntelle DuPree. Some elements of these lyrics resonate with similar themes from "Louder Now"'s "Miami," a track on which Lazzara seemed to be explaining to a significant other his own struggles with religion, and reconciling his checkered past with a current need for fidelity. On that track, Lazzara made comments like, "So long as you don't torture me with my past," "You just have to trust me--whoever I was then, I can't ever be again," and "The terror held in wedding bells, the comfort in 'there's no one else'." The line that stands out to me the most (in addition to a tossed off "god damn me" on the song's final chorus) is "The faith you've found I've never felt," which was printed three times the size of the rest of the song's lyrics on the album's lyric sheet. Religion was obviously a tough subject for Adam Lazzara circa 2006, one he was not at all sure of his feelings about. Now, Adam Lazzara circa 2009, on the chorus of a song he wrote about breaking up with his fiancee, snarls: "You quote the Good Book when it's convenient," and follows that with, "but you don't have the sense to tie your tangled tongue. Instead, you're slashing through the mud." If "Miami" was a song about learning to live with the less-than-perfect elements of his relationship with DuPree, "Everything Must Go" is a song about how, in the end, she couldn't do that, and neither could he. My last relationship was a long time ago (ended soon after that first blog entry about Taking Back Sunday, in fact), but it was with a religious person who ultimately couldn't handle my own agnosticism (among several other elements of my personality). Therefore, "Everything Must Go" hits close to home for me. Lazzara's frustrated listing of objects that once added up to domestic bliss and are now just trash for him to clear away ("hand-me-down couch and chair that used to be at your church--we borrowed them from there") is as wrenching for him to make as it is for us to hear. As he is about to launch into the final chorus, he asks, "Oh Lord, what have I done?" The implications are different, more sinister, than you'd normally expect from a cry to the lord, and that's only amplified by his return to the bitter line about quoting the "Good Book" when it's convenient. Oh Lord, I've been there.

There's plenty to like about the new Taking Back Sunday album. In addition to the three major highlights I've listed above, there are several other high-quality anthems here. The opening title track is a driving, catchy track that falls on the melodic hardcore side of Taking Back Sunday's musical spectrum. "Lonely, Lonely" is a more aggressive tune driven by chunka-chunk verses and a moshy half-speed bridge that would be at home on a Glassjaw album, contrasting them brilliantly with another great catchy chorus. "Cut Me Up, Jenny" has a bouncy verse riff that seems like something Jimmy Eat World would come up with, and "Capital M-E" is melodic alt-rock that does the trick for me even if its lyrics are obviously a Fred Mascherino dis.

All of this having been said, I have to admit that "New Again" is a step downwards in quality. It's certainly my least favorite Taking Back Sunday album thus far. Considering that I've adored all of their previous albums, those are hardly strong words of rebuke. Also, considering just how much I've played it since downloading it, and furthermore considering that I'm planning to buy it next time I get paid, none of this is to say that it's not good. It's a good record. I just wish it was a bit better. This album's ballad, "Where My Mouth Is," is interesting due to its forthcoming lyrical content about Adam Lazzara's drug addiction and time in rehab, but features music that only barely keeps me from reaching for the skip button. "Sink Into Me," the first single and the song that seems to get the most praise from mainstream reviewers, is relatively uncharacteristic for TBS. With a bridge driven by handclaps and shouts of "Hey! Hey!", it sounds too much like something from an alternative radio rock band that I don't dig. The chorus saves it, because you can always count on Lazzara and co. to come up with a great chorus, but in the end, it's disappointing. In fact, the first time I heard this song was on the radio, and I didn't recognize it as Taking Back Sunday. I liked it all right, but I was expecting it to be by the sort of guilty-pleasure band that I don't usually cop to liking in public (Matchbook Romance and, ummmmmm, Lost Prophets are good examples of this). When the DJ announced it as the new Taking Back Sunday single, I wasn't sure how to feel. That experience had just as much to do with my trepidation about this album as news of Mascherino's departure, actually.

One more thing I must mention--the production on "New Again" is the worst Taking Back Sunday have ever gotten, and it's almost certainly due to them attempting to get better production. They recorded "Where You Want To Be" with celebrated punk producer Lou Giordano, but the lion's share of "New Again" was produced by David Kahne, who has worked with such worthies as Paul McCartney, Sublime, Sugar Ray, The Bangles, and Stevie Nicks. I don't hate all of those artists, but I certainly don't think that a post-hardcore emo band should be going to someone who has worked with them for production. A few songs on the album were apparently produced by Matt Squire, who typically works with other commercially successful emo bands such as Panic At The Disco, The Explosion, and Thrice. I don't know who produced which tracks, but I'm highly suspicious that my favorite tracks on the album, which all tend to sound less polished and more punk, were produced by Matt Squire. I wish they'd worked with him on the entire album.

In the end, the positive factors outweigh the negatives, and I'm sure I'll continue to play "New Again" regularly for a good while. Taking Back Sunday has been one of my favorite bands of the past decade, and even if their latest album isn't quite up to previous standards, it's nowhere near enough for me to stop liking them. I'm not sure if seeing them live now would be quite as thrilling as it once would have been; after all, who sings the Nolan/Mascherino parts when they play the old songs these days? I'm also not at all sure what the future will bring for them; this album could easily be a transition record that leads to more brilliant work in the future, but it could also be the beginning of an inexorable downhill slide. Only time will tell. For now, though, I'm going to focus on the positives, and rock out to the truly great songs that are here.

Taking Back Sunday - "Summer, Man," "Swing," and "Everything Must Go"



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