Review Summary: Saying goodbye good.
Once likened to "being hit in the head with cotton candy" by author Andy Greenwald in his book about the birth of emo entitled Nothing Feels Good, the sound of The Promise Ring is characterized by lighthearted, jaunty guitars and youthful lyrics sung with a lisp by frontman Davey von Bohlen. It's this fun-filled approach that fueled their emo opus, 1997's Nothing Feels Good (after which Greenwald's book was named) and propelled The Promise Ring to relative fame. In a time where emo was becoming a household buzzword, von Bohlen and company were blazing a trail of influence for many future hit-or-miss emo bands who would either embrace or eschew the label.
Suddenly, however something changed. After 1999's release of Very Emergency and 2000's Electric Pink EP, the band took a two year break from major music releases. When word spread that the band had entered the studio with legendary producer Stephen Street (Blur
, The Smiths
), anticipation from fans was high and based on the belief that the ensuing LP would drip with the childish bliss that had become The Promise Ring's staple. Behind the scenes, however the band was facing hurdles far greater than the recording itself. Davey von Bohlen had undergone extensive surgery to remove a tumor in his head and the band itself began to split apart before dissolving completely the same year, with its members leaving to pursue their own projects. Von Bohlen and drummer Dan Didier turned their focus to their side project, Maritime, while bassist Scott Schoenbeck went on to play bass for Dashboard Confessional. To say that these events affected the tone of the band's final release would be an understatement, but just what did The Promise Ring leave behind?
2002 saw the official release of Wood/Water and the immediate reactions were not favorable. The album was met with harsh criticism for being too drastic a step away from the bouncy fun Promise Ring of the past. At its heart, the album rested on a certain flavor of melancholy and left the aftertaste of submission. In lead single "Stop Playing Guitar", Davey sighs "if I had a dime for every time I should have stopped playing guitar and put my nose in a book, my head would be healthy, my guitar would be dusty and that might just save me from a bunch of bad songs". The song is reminiscent of Very Emergency's ending track "All Of My Everythings" other than the fact that while the latter told a tale of a loss of connection between two people, the former addresses a disenchantment with music entirely. Singing openly about such a topic not only risked The Promise Rings credibility, but also the alienation of their fanbase who ardently supported their right to make music from the beginning when they were far from a polished ensemble pre-1997. It was brash, stupid, and brilliantly honest. Rather than burn out brilliantly with a crowd-pleasing, fun, jaunty album that everyone had come to expect, The Promise Ring came clean with themselves on their final effort. As a band at the end of its lifetime with members on the mend, the album wasn't a happy lie, it was an honest representation of where they stood as musicians and people at the time. This is where the true beauty of Wood/Water lies: it just isn't The Promise Ring.
Album opener "Size Of Your Life" refers to changes to the familiar in its chorus: "I've been around before, but this time I don't know what's in store". This line is build with the backbone of a relatively upbeat chord progression downtuned one semitone. As a means of easing the listener into the new soundscape, it does a reasonably fine job. By the time tracks "Wake Up April" and "Half Year Sun" roll around, however, its apparent that The Promise Ring that used to bounce around in full-body animal costumes to "Forget Me" has moved on to the slow drone of acoustic guitars and hushed melodies. Both are beautifully executed, with the outro of "Half Year Sun" being a standout moment on the album. "Become One Anything One Time" is another track that relies on an acoustic backbone, but introduces another element in its lead slide guitar. The chorus is a simple repeated "I'm just happy you stuck around" capped off with a pleading "we're all, all together now". The song feels lush, exotic and somehow familiar thanks to excellent production by Stephen Street, who somehow crafts a prechorus of an F chord drone into one of the songs high points.
The album broods and smolders its way to the penultimate track "Say Goodbye Good", which was one of the most heavily maligned songs upon Wood/Water's release and is regarded as a rubicon in Wood/Water's stylistic change by the band. A grand, gospel-esque track in the vein of Blur
's "Tender", "Say Goodbye Good" is quite a bittersweet sendoff for this band that brought fans such songs as "Why Did Ever We Meet?" and "Happiness Is All The Rage". Mostly a chant of "Say goodbye good, hey hey hey", the track expresses itself with few lines including the somber "the season's changed and the movie's stopped. Front lights are out, the curtains are drawn" before fading out to a choir repeating a simple chant of "hey hey hey". A fitting farewell to the mindless bliss that once infected The Promise Ring's music and those who loved it.
Wood/Water wasn't just the end of The Promise Ring as a band, it was an eschewing of the mask, a look behind the green curtain that was never hung. It was a defiance to the dishonesty that could have been the engine behind another pop gem, a refusal to simply phone in what the world came for. And it's absolutely better for it. Wood/Water is a deep, dark, beautiful record that may have been ahead of its time or perhaps just particularly divisive, but it can't be argued that it isn't fitting. Wood/Water simply could not have been anything other than what it is, and on a personal basis, I'm very grateful for that.