To mind, there’s no other band from the 2000s emo generation who’ve managed their longevity better than Taking Back Sunday. That’s not to say they’ve been exactly prolific—this album is coming after a seven-year absence that’s actually felt longer—but the purple patch they’ve hit across recent albums has done a staggering amount for them. And even then, this is a band who’ve always been held to a high standard; lest we forget, their 2002 debut Tell All Your Friends is a unanimously-agreed-upon emo classic. But with Happiness Is’ more mature, grounded approach to emo, and Tidal Wave’s messy yet stark dashes into punk, Taking Back Sunday have discounted any notion of them settling down into a comfy elder statesman recliner. Arguably, things have never been more exciting for them.
Though maybe that’ll be a point of contention on 152. On the surface—and likely depending on the individual listener—this isn’t an album that yells out with much ‘excitement’, even despite how much this seemingly has on its back. The number in the title has appeared on every one of Taking Back Sunday’s album covers, and biting the bullet to have it graduate as a full-on name in itself can feel like a pretty significant creative decision. A decision that might sour those who’ve been here since the beginning to the album even more, when a mark of a ‘definitive’ album is affixed to a fairly sizable shift towards indie and middle-of-the-road rock.
And to that crowd, the usual ‘explanations’ will feel like excuses. “They’re an older band now; they can’t make the same music forever,” some will say, to which the discourse will ensue and the album will seem way more controversial than it was ever intended. The truth is, though, 152 is still good because, contrary to popular belief, this sort of thing can work when done in the right way. This is not Taking Back Sunday’s dad-rock era; they clearly still know what they’re doing. It’s why there’s still an inkling of punk readiness to songs like S’old or Lightbringer, where the ramshackle raw materials are evident, regardless of the context they’re in. It’s a similar case with Adam Lazzara, whose renaissance as a singer continues in a setting that gives his more weathered tones even more room to marinate and exhale. For every moment of expressiveness lost on New Music Friday, there’s more multiple times over of elder statesman energy coming through on Quit Trying or The Stranger in weight or tension effortlessly wound up.
From there, it’s probably worth addressing the biggest changes, and the inevitable gripes that’ll come from them. Yes, it’s hard to deny that some of Taking Back Sunday’s indie impulses can stray a bit far from what feels beneficial. The One comes to mind most there, the closest to a washed-out Coldplay impression caught in some arena-sized floatiness they do well to avoid elsewhere. That in itself is a big mark in 152’s favour, though, given how easy it’d be to fall into a very cloying, sterile palette of sounds. Taking Back Sunday don’t do that, instead having more in common with The Killers in terms of a rustic, hearty, all-American bluster, albeit in a way that deliberately dials back on some of the more flagrant bombast. The pianos and synths stay as accompaniments to avoid swallowing or overwhelming what remains a rock core, and Taking Back Sunday are talented enough as composers to ensure it stays that way. The likes of Amphetamine Smiles and I Am The Only One Who Knows You operate in such a tight nexus between two eventualities, coexisting to put a shine on both the melodic foundations that have worked in the past, and a lighters-aloft spaciousness that’s all this album’s own within its creators’ catalogue.
At the end of the day, the propensity for some rich, sweet moments across the board on 152 speaks for itself. It’s a very natural, collaborative air that Taking Back Sunday have fostered, as they advance as both musicians and people into a space that works for them. Lyrically, that’s also the case, as you can really tell where a more mature headspace has been factored in. There’s definitely a warmth and a brightness trying to meted out, though without a lot of the fluff that often obscures what’s an actual, tangible sentiment. Trust a former emo band to come through with pragmatism, then, but it’s certainly effective in how light and dark are mediated. Lazzara’s vocals make that so easy to convey too, between a sincerity that recent albums have only continued to unearth more of, and lines like “The problem isn’t that I’ve changed / The problem is that you’ve stayed the same” that benefit greatly from an obvious history behind them.
In fact, that line might as well be the thesis statement for 152 as a whole, even if that reading may be more confrontational that Taking Back Sunday are likely to want in this current incarnation. Regardless, it remains salient—they have changed, but in a way that’s still faithful to their identity as a band. You only need to look beyond the very exterior of 152 to see that, as well as how Taking Back Sunday’s evolution and continued metamorphoses are still producing good work. The fact they’ve not been caught in a stranglehold by nostalgia for 20 years ago doesn’t mitigate that; if anything, avoiding that allure entirely and marching forth at their own tempo makes them stronger than most.
For fans of:The Killers, The Glorious Sons, Switchfoot
‘152’ by Taking Back Sunday is released on 27th October on Fantasy Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall