Before delivering an assessment of Taking Back Sunday’s most recent album, I feel it may be important to delve into the band’s history. After releasing two critically acclaimed albums on Victory Records, they shifted to a major for their mainstream breakthrough Louder Now and the disappointing follow-up New Again. While the release of 2011’s self-titled reunion with the original Tell All Your Friends lineup was generally hailed as a success, it was fraught with mismanagement from the label that released the album, Warner Bros. The band commented in interviews about how Warner did not promote the album adequately, and on the bonus disc that came with the self-titled even hinted that the label made the band take songs off of the tracklisting (the biggest loss being the stellar B-side “Mourning Sickness”). Because of this disappointment with Warner Bros., the band recently moved to Hopeless Records, allowing them to retain some autonomy over their musical direction and tracking decisions.
With that newfound freedom comes an element of complacency, however. Though the band’s new album Happiness Is is stacked up front (in much the same way that the aforementioned Louder Now was), it fails to consistently find the mark. As a result, many of the album’s back-half tracks miss the mark. “Like You Do” is the biggest offender, with its terribly generic chorus lyrics and boring verse melodies. “They Don’t Have Any Friends” is reminiscent of “Error: Operator”; it’s a largely forgettable “rocker” track with a powerful bridge that just barely allows the song to tread water. The bridge here is powered by a few particularly explosive drum fills by Mark O’Connell, a consistently underrated part of the Taking Back Sunday dynamic.
“We Were Younger Then,” likewise, appears poised to detonate in the bridge, but vocalist Adam Lazzara no longer has the vocal prowess to power the song’s otherwise well-constructed outro. The band constructs a Tell All Your Friends-esque repetitious outro which Lazzara attempts to belt in a high falsetto over top of, singing, “Only in pictures before have I seen / anything like from where I am standing/ Looking I can’t tell where the city stops / And the nothing begins.” But because Lazzara’s vocals have taken a step back since the band’s prime, the ending lacks the same fire and emotional weight of the “This is what living like this does” line from “Ghost Man On Third” or any of the other epic outros on Tell All Your Friends. As a result, the track comes off as a sort of paint-by-numbers version of TBS- a sort of watered-down, kid-friendly retread of what made the band successful.
Album closer “Nothing at All” is a largely acoustic ballad, but fails to live up to the expectations that previous Taking Back Sunday album closers have set for it. “Nothing at All” merely meanders while its immediate predecessor, “Call Me In The Morning” from the self-titled, explodes into a rousing rallying cry from John Nolan.
Nolan, by the way, is woefully underused for the second straight album. It appears that Taking Back Sunday has finally completely abandoned the trade-off vocals in favor of having Nolan echo whatever it is Lazzara is rambling at that moment. It would be nice to just see Nolan perhaps take lead on a song here or there, as he is as talented an accomplished a musician as Taking Back Sunday has to offer, but he is largely in the shadows here.
There is no doubt, though, that there are snapshots of the band’s former greatness present on Happiness Is. The most apparent of these is the album’s lead track, “Flicker, Fade,” which will go down as one of Taking Back Sunday’s best tracks when they decide to hang it up for good. The song takes the dynamic of bridge-loud chorus outro that Taking Back Sunday has ridden to such success and amplifies it, with both Lazzara and Nolan nearly screaming as the song leads up to its climactic moment. “Beat Up Car,” on the contrary takes much of its energy from the pulsating rhythm delivered by O’Connell and bassist Shaun Cooper, as well as what sounds like a brooding synth line.
The surprising album highlight is “Better Homes and Gardens,” a mid-tempo number which finds Lazzara yelling “It was all for nothing, yeah, it was all a waste” in the chorus. The songs subject matter is reminiscent of Jimmy Eat World’s Damage in the sense that it is an “adult breakup song”. The mature subject matter, coupled with the verse’s infectious vocal rhythm, helps to buoy the mostly skippable back-half of the album.
As I’m sure it’s easy to surmise from my review of Happiness Is…, Taking Back Sunday is a band that I have come to expect a lot from each time they release an album. It is because of these expectations, however, that it becomes difficult to be as forgiving of missteps as I would be for a band that I’m new to listening to. Although in the words of Uncle Ben in Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility,” I don’t think that holds true for this album. Taking Back Sunday, by virtue of writing two absolute classic albums and many other phenomenal songs, have earned the “great power” that they had to go independent and write the album that they wanted to write. They no longer have any responsibility or necessity to prove anything. But wouldn’t it be nice if just one more time they could put out another album that is front-to-back as consistently great as Tell All Your Friends or Where You Want To Be.
Perhaps we should just get used to this as the new Taking Back Sunday standard: 4-5 good tracks, and 6 forgettable-to-terrible tracks every three years going forward. If that is the case, then I am appreciative of the standout tracks that Happiness Is has given me and I look forward to the next set that Taking Back Sunday has to offer.