Don't call 'Harmlessness' emo revival. This is post-emo.
“There is no way we’ll ever be put on a show with Parquet Courts.”
Greg Horbal, formerly of The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, said this to me during an interview conducted around the time when Emo Revival trendpieces were becoming a thing. And here, Horbal hit on the underlying subtext of every single one of them. By this point, “emo revival” had gone beyond describing the original clutch of bands carrying the torch for Cap’n Jazz or American Football (Snowing, Algernon Cadwallader, Joie de Vivre, etc.) to include bigger names in pop punk, post-hardcore… basically every version of punk-derived, hooky, left-of-center, independently released rock music that had been ignored by mainstream press. And though he was specifically referring to Parquet Courts due to Andrew Savage’s pop punk past in Teenage Cool Kids, Parquet Courts were also a stand-in for what he felt would forever elude his band: indie rock acceptance.
Derrick Shanholtzer-Dvorak, TWIABP’s guitarist and de facto spokesperson, prefaced by correctly pointing out that for bands like them, the barriers were due to social connections—their label, who they toured with, the fact that they were called “emo,” and how most publications were shitting on the good bands long before Hot Topic and Pete Wentz’s first dick pic redefined the genre.
Though TWIABP and their ilk had developed an intense IRL fanbase and presence that far outstripped their URL presence, they were increasingly aware of their ceiling, being denied access to the spoils of indie rock fame—late night TV appearances, getting snapped up by Matador or Merge, festival bookings and the like. And even when the new regime of emo was starting to make inroads in 2013, the people who performed and wrote about it were forced to give penance--even if most would allow that the MySpace era wasn’t representative of the genre, it was still seen as a socially and politically regressive concept. All of a sudden, Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends had replaced Diary and The Power of Failing and Nothing Feels Good as the definitive article of emo. There is a grand total of zero songs about girl problems on the Hotelier’s Home Like NoPlace Is There and TWIABP’s Whenever, If Ever, but their creators still had to reckon with a version of their applied genre that had nothing to do with them. Imagine if every review of Sunbather was prefaced with a disclaimer that Deafheaven wasn’t like Bon Jovi. Or, imagine if Dirty Sprite 2 was evaluated primarily on the degree of agency women were perceived to have in songs like “Freak Hoe” or “Groupies.”
While TWIABP emerged as a frontrunner for their scene, they were also one of the tougher sells beyond its core audience. Especially if you haven’t been there from the beginning. The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die is such a great band name that I tried to download a smaller font to my iPod so I can see the whole thing at all times. I’ll admit that most of the comments I see from people who had not previously heard the Connecticut collective are negative towards it—it’s corny, it’s pretentious, it’s somehow more embarrassing to say aloud than, I dunno, Sexwitch or Neon Indian or Tobias Jesso Jr. But if you aren’t familiar with the ultra-serious and ultra-absurd names that post-hardcore and emo bands often give themselves, you won’t catch how TWIABP is actually being tongue-in-cheek.
And though their debut LP Whenever, If Ever basically took #emorevival overground, the band has done everything possible to test the patience of those who’ve invested themselves by believing in them. Their live shows can be galvanizing displays of communal uplift. They can also include the legendary medley of “Derrick Talking Shit About the Venue/Harsh Noise for 20 Minutes.” Their social media presence can be hilarious and also abrasive. In 2014, they released Between Bodies, a collaboration with spoken word artist Chris Zizzamia that was so roundly despised that I actually felt bad for the guy. After the releases of 2015’s Harmlessness’ first two singles were warmly received, they released “Wendover” in a backwards mp3. They were really pissed off at horses for some reason.
But this is why, out of all the emo revivalists, I found TWIABP to be the most fascinating band and the one with the potential to create something truly unique and forward-thinking. Their restlessness and prolificity reminded me of Deerhunter in 2008 or Animal Collective in the early-to-mid 2000s. They could either release a masterpiece or totally implode (you know, like Mineral, Sunny Day Real Estate, Cap’n Jazz, the Promise Ring, etc.).
They did the former, and Harmlessness’ greatest success is breaking down any perceived barrier between indie rock and emo and pop punk, speaking for the people who owned Funeral and Futures in 2004, stayed for the entire Desaparecidos/Built to Spill/Brand New triple bill and saw little difference in the effect of Refused and Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s versions of agitprop.
If all of the above seemed self-evident, Harmlessness respects the hell out of you, its guiding principle being an allegiance to all forms of maximalist, ambitious, emotionally overwhelming rock music. My god, does this band try. It knows it has to, because even if Harmlessness speaks for itself, it doesn’t have a podium. One of the characteristics of the best emo albums of recent years (Pianos Become the Teeth’s Keep You, Foxing’s The Albatross, The Hotelier’s Home Like NoPlace Is There, Joyce Manor’s Never Hungover Again, hell, Restorations’ LP3, and Cymbals Eat Guitars’ LOSE count) is their earnest, centrist ambitions, the sense going in that if they don’t make their greatest fucking album ever, no one outside Fest might notice.
I almost don’t even want to talk about the music because there are at least 50 moments on this thing where I imagine yelling at a non-convert, “how can you think THIS IS JUST OK?” The run of “Mental Health”-“Wendover”-“We Need More Skulls” spans raw folk confession, Pacific Northwest lope and stoner metal and are the best Bright Eyes, Modest Mouse, and Jesu songs of the past eight years. Read that sentence again, this happens in the span of, like, ten minutes.
Here’s the most important thing: Harmlessness is not a nostalgic document, not an emo, indie rock, or any kind of throwback. TWIABP live in 2015, debating violent retribution against sexual predators (“January 10th, 2014"), disordered eating (“The Word Lisa”), the difficulties of being a creative being in the current economy (“We Need More Skulls”), seeking help for depression (“I Can Be Afraid of Anything”), loving another human being… it’s as overwhelming or comforting as you want it to be.
The fifth song on Harmlessness has a title that’s equal to the band’s name and is the apotheosis of indie rock self-actualization: “Rage Against the Dying of the Light.” Like every song on Harmlessness, it’s bold and complex and dazzling in a way that can objectively satisfy in a chin-stroking way—it sounds like Fugazi covering Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” and thus like nothing I’ve ever heard before. But the concept hits directly in the emotional hot zone of the 18 to 22 age range that no other rock band is aiming for right now with more firepower. It makes a humorous allusion to Rage Against the Machine, a completely humorless band whose binary politics are most sensible to a high schooler. Bello and maybe six other people wail, “We’ll build a fire so high, they’ll turn all the lights out and we will sing, ‘I am alive, I deserve to be, not getting quiet, swallowing age.’” This appeals to the super serious guy who’s aged out of Rage, the idea that there’s this metaphysical light in the world and that if it’s dying, you might have to offer yourself as kindling for the greater good—not coincidentally, I’ve heard this expressed most passionately on Cure and Thursday albums. You know, one maximalist, ambitious, emotionally overwhelming rock music who clearly influenced the other.
As much as I want to say Harmlessness is what the emo revival was leading up to, that still feels like selling it short. The band was called “post-emo” in an early PR email for Harmlessness, a term which was removed in subsequent press releases. I wish they kept it. The emo revival ends here because its flagship band made the best indie rock record of 2015, period.
Ian Cohen is a music writer who really, really, really likes this album. Follow him on Twitter - @en_cohen