When Fireworks returned to the forefront of the pop-punk of the scene with their sophomore full-length album Gospel in 2011, the release was met with some uncertainty from its fanbase. The release seemed a significant departure from the straightforward pop-punk songwriting of the band’s debut album All I Have to Offer Is My Own Confusion. However, the summer anthems and wild sing-alongs of Gospel have fittingly become something of a pop-rock “Good News” over the past two years. It should come as no surprise then that I greeted Firework’s most recent full-length album Oh, Common Life– and the sonic shift that accompanies it- with an element of trepidation at first. Would they be able to recreate the magic that made Gospel one of my favorite albums of 2011?

I’m grateful they didn’t try to. That’s not to say that there isn’t a spark in Oh, Common Life– there absolutely is- but simply that Fireworks didn’t simply stand for recreating a successful album. Instead they created a darker, self-reflective pop-rock album which defies any and all comparisons to the band’s previous work.

A simple side-by-side comparison of the band’s past two album openers makes this sonic difference abundantly clear. The twinkling, sunny guitars and bouncy bass line of “Arrows” have been replaced on “Glowing Crosses” by an aural assault of power chords and a fuzzy, distorted bass riff in the second verse courtesy of Kyle O’Neil. Even the chorus’ hook, “I’m burning on your front lawn, like a glowing cross,” has a brooding, sinister quality to it. The organs that kick in in the song’s bridge seem to convey an air of a funeral procession as well- definitely not the way to start off a summery pop-punk album.

Much of the album’s success comes from the vast improvements Mackinder has made to both his delivery and his melody writing. Patrick Stump himself would be jealous of some of the melodies Mackinder lays down here- especially on “Flies On Tape,” a blast of vigor which finds Mackinder dipping into a gorgeous falsetto as he belts out “Lucky, lucky, I’d rather be lucky, then good, yeah, good at anything.” The biting self-deprecation at work here becomes something of a running theme. Whether it is feeding off the energy of the backing instrumentation (as he does on “Glowing Crosses”) or singlehandedly carrying a song with a beautiful, soothing melody (as is the case on the unexpectedly delightful “The Back Window’s Down”), Mackinder’s vocals have taken a huge step forward. His voice is certainly not for everyone- at times he combines the most nasally aspect of Chris Conley with the vibrato of the aforementioned Stump- but his talent is no longer deniable.

Whereas the front half of Oh, Common Life is powered by some of the band’s best hooks they’ve ever crafted, the second half falters a bit at points to maintain the same quality. The summery “The Sound of Young Americans” sounds incredibly out of place here. While its repetitious “I’m letting go, letting go,” will probably be a blast if it finds its way into live sets, it feels much more like a Gospel B-side than anything that should be found on the back half of this release- though guitarist should be given a huge amount of praise as the lead guitar line sounds at once nostalgic and inventive. Another back-half track, “Run, Brother, Run,” has some of the most heartbreaking lyrical content on the album (“I was 25 when my dad died, my arms felt weak, my heart grew tired,”) but it is weighed down by a suffocating song structure and a predictable chorus.

In keeping with the theme of introspection and self-deprecation mentioned earlier, instead of getting a rowdy “My Friends Over You”-esque album closer (as the band’s previous two full lengths ended- with “When We Stand On Each Other’s Shoulders, We Block Out The Sun” and “The Wild Bunch” respectively), the listener is met with the much different approach to the album’s denouement, “The Hotbed of Life.” Mackinder reflects on his childhood (providing vivid memories of accidentally electrocuting himself among others), and argues that while age was supposed to deliver him wisdom, it has just left him with a certain emptiness: “I had marks on the door frame, from when a year brought welcome change. Now it all just feels the same,” he sings. As is the case on Fireworks past releases, Mackinder seems particularly interested in the concept of aging (“Oh, Why Can’t We Start Old and Grow Younger” from Gospel is a good indicator of his philosophy), but on The Hotbed of Life it appears he has an epiphany on the implications of that aging- an epiphany that seems to come directly as a result of his father’s passing.

Speaking from experience, I know how quickly one’s life can shift with the loss of a parent. In a moment you can go from being an eager-to-please child to a world-weary adult. That’s why the honest displayed in the second verse of “The Hotbed of Life” is so chilling as a result. I can see myself in Mackinder as he sings, “I used to hang grocery bags up and down, up and down my arms to impress my mom. Now I use them to carry boxes out of my dead dad’s house.” This verse is probably the most important Fireworks has ever crafted, and it proves that Mackinder is just as capable of writing emotionally devastating songs as his contemporaries.

Though segments of the song have the same raucous, upbeat sound that we’ve become familiar with from Fireworks, the song also contains an extended bridge in which keyboardist and newly minted band member Adam Mercer first gets to come front and center with a simple, yet beautiful organ arrangement and then, quickly following that, the sound of a lilting toy piano. The toy piano is an especially fitting instrumental choice here, as it immediately conjures up the feeling of weary nostalgia and loss of childhood that the band seems to be aiming at with the album closer.

In an album full of departures from the band’s past, however, the departure in the lyrical content is probably the single greatest departure from Gospel to Oh, Common Life. Mackinder seems to be haunted not just by personal demons, but by realizations that everyone is going through these same difficulties as him. On “Bed Sores,” Mackinder comments extensively on the idea of being trapped in one’s own personal form of hell. “I keep telling myself, Everybody’s hell’s better than my own, but my hell’s my own,” he sings in the chorus, seemingly commenting on the futility of comparing your own life difficulties to others.

By changing the songwriting approach on this release, Fireworks has allowed Oh, Common Life, to stand out from the bands other releases- and continues the band’s incredibly strong track record of making some of the best punk-tinged pop-rock out there. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.