Review Summary: Ten years out of high school, the world's changed but the music's stayed the same.
Can pop-punk really grow up? Almost all the best albums of the genre capture what it is to be a teenager, either reveling in the carefree simplicity of life and energetically expressing the angsty underbelly of it like Green Day
, or else treating the mundane turmoil of life like heavy drama like Yellowcard
or Jimmy Eat World
. To a generation to whom the genre was personally addressed, the classics are close to the hearts of many of us, and alien to the rest. That was 2004. Now it's 2013, and the only pop-punk to be seen is scene pop like All Time Low. The carefree and simple bands mostly turned into alt-rock radio acts. The "serious", Myspace-quoteworthy bands mostly kept at it, developing their craft without really maturing in any tangible way. Meanwhile, the people who spent their summers with Tell All Your Friends
and Leaving Through the Window
struggle to explain their appeal to the people who didn't.
The Greatest Generation
bucks both of these trends. The sound is instantly familiar "hard" pop-punk, but the message is specifically aimed at the same people who were hit by the genre in the first place: the people who were 16 in 2003 and listened to Your Favorite Weapon
or Ocean Avenue
to dull the pain of ugly relationships or unpopularity. The people who are now, statistically, struggling to put their lives together. This might be the Greatest Generation, but we've had no chance to prove it. A lot of people share singer Soupy Campbells situation, stuck surrounded by people who have found success, forced to deal with the fact that their cousins have kids instead of laying on their parent's couch smelling like beer and sadness. The use of historical imagery, specifically the generation recognized in the title, amplifies the theme of squandered youth; contrast the generation that won the war and rebuilt the nation economically with the one that bickers on Youtube and puts Canadian flags on their backpacks while traveling abroad.
The lyrics are typically great, with the combination of concise expression and strong imagery we've come to expect from Campbell. However, The Greatest Generation
succeeds strongest in combining detailed, serious realism with the kind of tense nostalgia that fans want from pop-punk. For example, the track "Dismantling Summer" describes a hospital-bound girlfriend's illness in a contrasting tone of evocative metaphors, honest confessions, and a familiar trope re-purposed: "I haven't felt a heartbreak until now". The theme of this album is reflected in matching the music and sentiments of youth ("my heart's been broken", "my life's going nowhere") with real, matured, validations of those untimely, overblown claims. Not getting invited to a party or having the girl you like date your friend might have been crises when you were a teenager, but the step up to adulthood introduces many, more serious problems, and the deceptively genius move of swapping in the old problems for the new ones does the album a lot of favours thematically. There are still a number of buzzwords from that old music that pop up in newly mature contexts. "Summer" is no longer a time for careless fun and romance, but a spark of hope and a time for nostalgia. "Heartbreak" isn't the sting of rejection, it's the pain of indifference or distance. "***" doesn't defy anyone anymore, it's just an expression of frustration. This is meant to be a cohesive, almost-but-not-quite conceptual, and far-reaching album. For a pop-punk album, this is ambitious stuff, and I don't mean ambitious in the American Idiot
Musically, The Greatest Generation
lives up to its heavy subject matter. The Wonder Years deliver pitch-perfect pop-punk, and even without the thematic and lyrical excellence of the album it would still be one of the finest works of the genre in the past few years. The most important quality of this album is its consistency. A lot of Suburbia
was excellent, but weighed down by too much mediocre material. Not so here; every track is airtight, catchy, and exemplifies all of the best qualities of the genre. The drumming especially is top-notch, especially on the closing track, and the guitars and bass are heavy when they have to be. Campbell's voice sounds much better here than in the past, generally avoiding the whineyness that came up too much in his earlier work. There's a major theme of anthemic tracks on this album, giving each song appropriate emotional weight to match the lyrics. The music's drivingly serious without overextending itself with too much acoustic guitars or piano, as one might expect.
The final track, and the one that will get the most attention, "I Want to Sell Out My Funeral" is a stunning conclusion to the album. Doing something I've personally never heard before, especially from a pop album, it combines some of the most memorable refrains from the prior tracks and melds them seamlessly with a heartbreaking and somehow inspiring message of realistic resignation balanced with an optimistic underlying message:
"Two blackbirds on a highway sign are laughing at me here with my wings clipped.
I'm staring up at the sky but the bombs keep ***ing falling.
There's no devil on my shoulder; he's got a rocking chair on my front porch but I won't let him in.
No, I won't let him in; 'cause I'm sick of seeing ghosts and I know how it's all gonna end.
There's no triumph waiting; there's no sunset to ride off in.
We all want to be great men and there's nothing romantic about it.
I just want to know that I did all I could with what I was given"
This isn't an album about whining, it's an album about getting the hell over it and realizing that the summer relationships and popularity contests that the old pop-punk often dwelled on might be a nice throw-back, but there are bigger problems out there. And even those bigger problems don't give you any excuse to lay down and give up.
There are going to be people who don't "understand" this album, and I don't mean that in a pretentious or condescending way. The Greatest Generation
is crafted for a particular audience, and for that audience it might hit like a sack of bricks. It's not for everyone, and some pop-punk fans may even find it too over-serious. But it's an ambitious album, and it is successful in every way it seeks to be. This is pop-punk, ten years out of high school, and matured to match.