Is This Still Good?: Taking Back Sunday — Tell All Your Friends

  • Is This Still Good? is a series in which I revisit records that I loved as a youngish person, and examine how well they have held up over the years for me.

How did I get into this record?

In the spring of 2002, my friend Adam Horning traveled to Iowa City to see Taking Back Sunday play at Gabe’s Oasis. Tell All Your Friends had just come out but had not yet caught on with a big audience. Adam came back raving about this new band and how big they would be. I took a short listen to a song or two, decided the singer sounded way too irritating, and said no thanks.

But then. THEN. You’ll never believe this, folks. It’s my senior year of high school, I’m living the high life, and THEN…my girlfriend of a year breaks up with me. CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS.

I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say because I was 18 and an idiot, I felt betrayed. Wronged. Duped and deserted! Amidst this anger and heartbreak, I came back to Tell All Your Friends and found a record that had seemingly been written and recorded solely to reflect my individual experience as a guy who had been broken up with FOR ABSOLUTELY NO REASON. Here were Adam Lazarra and John Nolan singing the exact words I had been feeling but hadn’t figured out how to say. With no one to love anymore, I instead fell in love with this record.

Is the music still good?

This was a time when “emo” was really starting to mean “anything where the singer doesn’t sound like he wants to kick your ass.” As long as it was very melodic, had a driving rhythm and the guitarists used a lot of octave chords, it was emo. Maybe it also was pop-punk? It’s hard to say.

I think the song that holds up the best musically is easily the opener, “You Know How I Do.” That introductory riff and busy drum pattern, combined with the triumphant feel of the chord sequence and the refrain of the chorus is quite a mission statement for a young band on their very first record. From there, the band dips into touches of post-hardcore and slower rock fare, but they mostly stick in the pop-punk-emo lane.

Are the lyrics still good?

Hoo boy. Do you have a minute?

For me, the toughest part about revisiting Tell All Your Friends is the lyrics. I love “You Know How I Do” partially because it is not about being broken up with, but is rather a statement against becoming too fucked up on drugs. That’s good because pretty much every other song on the record is about being broken up with.

It would be impossible to pick one band and pin the crime on them for starting the lyrical trend of saying, “I am a perfect young man who has never been a bad boyfriend or done weird shit or had bouts of rage that disturbed my girlfriend or just brushed her off when she was vulnerable or made her feel unloved. I have never done anything wrong, and therefore this girl that has broken up with me is a literal monster who should feel shame every day for the rest of her life because she ended the most perfect eight-month relationship the world has ever known.” But if we had to pick one band who made it a big thing? That might be Taking Back Sunday.

Did Lazzara and Nolan do a good job capturing the essence of young love and the confusing swirl of emotion that encircles a love gone wrong? I suppose they did, but they did it in a way that places all of the blame on the woman and pretty much none of it on them. You don’t really get an idea of what exactly happened, but you know that the protagonist is pissed.

The lyrics are a bummer to me for many reasons, but what I really noticed on this listen is the condescension toward women. In different songs, they refer to the female antagonist as “princess,” “sweetheart,” and most appallingly, as a “trick.” It’s the utter lack of awareness in using terms like that which just makes me want to hop in a time machine and slap them in the face.

But it’s undeniable that these lyrics not only captured a mood and a time, but were also written in ways that a crowd could eat up in a live setting. I saw Taking Back Sunday play a sold-out Gabe’s Oasis in August 2002, mere months after they drew less than 50 people, and already the show was a constant singalong. I have a fond memory of “Great Romances of the 20th Century” where, unlike on the recording, the band dropped out entirely during the parts where Lazzara sings “Come on, come on,” allowing the crowd to own that moment and feel something special.

Did the band’s look age well?

Pop-punk-emo bands usually didn’t have too bold of an image or anything, they mostly just dressed like non-jockish men of that era. Just some hoodies and jackets and button-up shirts, nothing too crazy. I do notice some fingerless gloves which seem REAL out of place, but hey, I also respect the confidence to show up to the photo session looking like a cat burglar.

What are the worst songs?

“Head Club” is an absolutely terrible closing song for the record, containing precisely zero hooks and just ending everything in an unpleasant manner. “Ghost Man On Third” tries to be an emo ballad but just bogs down the record with a trite chord sequence, ugly vocals in which Lazzara and Nolan do this weird rising baby shriek thing, a crammed-in female vocal cameo and some bad synths. It’s bad!

What are the best songs?

As previously mentioned, “You Know How I Do” is great. “Great Romances of the 20th Century” does feel cathartic in the way the band meant it to be. But I think the song that makes me feel most at ease is “You’re So Last Summer,” as it’s the closest Lazzara and Nolan come to admitting that all this talk of heartbreak and betrayal has maybe been a little overblown. Besides utilizing the emo ballad technique to much better effect than “Ghost Man On Third,” “You’re So Last Summer” is memorable for perhaps the most self-aware emo line ever written: “The truth is you could slit my throat, and with my one last gasping breath I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt.” It’s a genuinely funny line that just might expose this whole thing as a silly farce, but am I giving them too much credit? They had to have known that line was ridiculous, right?

So…is this still good?

For me, no, it isn’t. Listening to Tell All Your Friends is too painful. It brings me back to the summer of 2002, right after I graduated high school, when I spent far too much time being angry at my ex-girlfriend and everything that surrounded that situation. I don’t remember having any kind of self-reflection on what I could have done better as a boyfriend. It was just, “I’m right, she’s wrong, nothing is fair, everything is stupid.” And while it’s still basically true that everything is stupid, the other proclamations there have not held up under scrutiny. I was probably a bit of a self-important asshole, and though at the time it felt like a remedy for heartbreak, a record like this one was the absolute last thing I needed to make me a better person. All it did was make me more of an asshole. I suspect it did the same for countless other men around the world.

Also, Adam Lazzara’s voice just bothers me. His mouth is often wide open when he sings and it sounds like he’s literally crying. Yuck. Adam, you’re so 2002.

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