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Taking Back Sunday - Tell All Your Friends Music Album Reviews

The newly reissued landmark debut from the Amityville emo band takes heartbreak, jealousy, and depression to an operatic intensity, but does so with sharp wit, a knowing wink, and oh so many hooks.

If there was ever a visual metaphor for emo’s second wave, it’s a gang of women in tank tops kicking the shit out of a skinny white guy. That iconic image, a flip of David Fincher’s Fight Club from the video for Taking Back Sunday’s “Cute Without the E (Cut From the Team),” broadly symbolizes a wave of early ‘00s bands who’d been downhearted and used pop and post-hardcore to expose their freshly picked scabs. But the video’s scene was also on-the-nose to the point of being camp, marking the divergent path that Taking Back Sunday took from their peers. Their music described all the ways of being an emotional punching bag even as it sent up bleeding-heart stereotypes. The balance between wit and sincerity courses through their newly-remastered, still gripping debut, 2002’s Tell All Your Friends.

Taking Back Sunday’s members came from the kind of suburban towns that have a way of magnifying anxiety, isolation, and paranoia into high-stakes urgency. In 1999, the five-piece formed in Amityville, New York, leading their then-label Victory Records to proclaim that “a city that has been synonymous with nothing but horror since the 1979 release of The Amityville Horror is about to be redefined.” But given the near-universal concerns of their landmark debut Tell All Your Friends—heartbreak, jealousy, and depression, elevated to an operatic intensity—the five-piece could have come from just about any out-of-the-way place in the U.S. The stretch of grey highway depicted on the cover of their debut album Tell All Your Friends is about as region-specific as a McDonald’s.

Their sound, though, had tell-tale antecedents in Long Island’s thriving late-’90s punk scene and post-hardcore across the nation. The hooks of the Get Up Kids, the intensity of Thursday, and the post-rockish flourishes of Cap’n Jazz come together in Taking Back Sunday’s taut, poppy anthems, while also leaving a breadcrumb trail for fans to go deeper into the genre. Guitarist Eddie Reyes had played in bands including the Movielife, and the call-and-response vocals of another former band, Clockwise, inspired Adam Lazzara and John Nolan’s fevered duels.

On Tell All Your Friends, every instrument pushes against each other. Frontman Adam Lazzara—a microphone masochist with the swooping hair of a Funko Pop! figurine—delivers the album’s opening lines as if he’s been waiting his whole life to do it. “So sick so sick of being tired, and oh so tired of being sick.” Later, a chorus-slash-manifesto arrives alongside guitars that hit like an electrical current’s surge. “We won’t stand for hazy eyes anymore.” It’s a sublime bit of chest-puffing nonsense, a stake in the ground that’s twisted until it holds fast.

The psyche of young, white, cis straight men is dissected with startling candor. “Ghost Man on Third” is a brutally vivid chronicle of addiction and suicidal ideation, on which Lazzara wrenchingly repeats the line, “It’s a shame I don’t think that they’ll notice.” Meanwhile, “Bike Scene,” with gorgeous backing vocals from Nolan’s sister Michelle DaRosa, fits in a hundred hooks while it evokes post-heartbreak depression. “The Blue Channel” takes a sleazy riff and soaks it in screams, before Lazzara’s taunting whisper at the song’s close: “Do you know what your girl’s been up to?”

At times like this, author Jessica Hopper’s description of women in emo songs comes to mind. They are, she wrote in a 2003 essay, “denied the dignity of humanization through both the language and narratives [...] only of consequence in romantic settings.” It’s hard to deny this read of Tell All Your Friends’ lyrics. But the band knowingly play into emo’s tropes—by 2002, already well-worn—with a knowing wink. Women are addressed as “sweetie” and “princess,” terms that endow their songs the satirical register of screwball comedy. You can imagine Cary Grant delivering a quip like “Cute Without the E”’s “don’t bother, angel,” through a plume of cigarette smoke. And “You’re So Last Summer”’s unforgettable line—“You could slit my throat/And with my one last gasping breath I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt”—is both achingly real and downright absurd, a humorous quality hammered home by Flava Flav’s bizarre lip-sync to the lines in the song’s video.

In a 2003 Absolute Punk interview, Nolan explained his and Lazzara’s psychodramatic reenactments of a straight couple’s dialogue in their music: “Me and Adam had an idea originally to have some of the lyrics written like a play where one line is the boy and the next line is the girl,” he said. This fluidity, coupled with Lazzara’s slash fic-catalyzing hangouts with other emo frontmen, allows for delightfully queer readings of songs like “You’re So Last Summer,” on which Lazzara belts, “These grass stains on my knees they don’t mean a thing.” (He’s recounting the speech of a woman. But he’s still the one saying it.) Taking Back Sunday’s innate flamboyance, coupled with their songs’ willful slippage of gender binaries, makes them a complicating outlier in a largely straight scene which privileged cis male voices even as their lyrics ultimately upheld its supportive pillars.

Even so, the most compelling relationship cataloged in Tell All Your Friends is the flame war between Taking Back Sunday and Brand New’s Jesse Lacey (2017 reports alleged that Lacey is a sexual abuser and pedophile). A former member of the band, Lacey was allegedly kicked out of Taking Back Sunday after romancing Nolan’s girlfriend, and responded with 2001’s cruelly catchy DUI fantasy, “Seventy Times 7.” The Amityville band turned Lacey’s words against him in the math-y anthem “There’s No ‘I’ in Team,” but everyone involved seemed to revel in the drama; the bands came together to perform a mash-up of the two songs a few months after Tell All Your Friends’ release. Real-life context seemed to undermine any real threat of lyrics like “best friends means I pulled the trigger,” stoking the mythos of both groups. Adding credence to the theory that the rivalry was only skin deep, you could buy the Team Brand New or Team Taking Back Sunday shirt.

Unbeknownst to the band members who made the album while just grazing legal drinking age, Tell All Your Friends was a pivot point for second-wave emo. The genre exploded in late 2004 and into 2005 as Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance became TRL staples and Taking Back Sunday’s second album, 2004’s Where You Want to Be, sold 163,000 copies in its first week, a staggering number even in the CD era. But Tell All Your Friends still stands for being young, being horny, being a troll. It was a high-water mark at a moment just before everything changed.

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