Album Review(s): Deliberately Alive by Future Teens and A Dream Away by The Juliana Theory
And when I say that I was “emo” before I started listening to bands like The Promise Ring, or The Get Up Kids, during my junior year in high school after discovering them via the old MTV “alternative” music showcase, “120 Minutes,” what I mean is that I was an emotional child, and an even more emotional teenager who, in retrospect, could have greatly benefitted from seeing a therapist, some kind of prescribed antidepressant or anxiety medication, or all of the above.
Instead, I was just incredibly withdrawn, for a number of years.
The first time I heard the descriptor “emo” was during my freshman year in college, when, early on during the first semester, I became acquaintances with a girl named Meghan, who was, by all accounts, incredibly emo—more emo than I could ever hope to be or want to be, and is, quite possibly, still very emo as a grown woman.
And that’s the thing that I realized around five years ago, when I sat down to listen to and write about the second self-titled American Football album—a quintessential, influential emo band that had broken up almost as soon as they had formed and issued their first self-titled album in 1999. A band I had only heard about, or been sort of aware of, but had no experiences with up until that point.
And when I sat down with the album, what I was not expecting was to see so much of myself—still in my early 30s then, in the music; specifically the song “I’ve Been So Lost For So Long.”
American Football’s lyricist, Mike Kinsella, is six years older than I am, and what that album, as well as the subsequent third self-titled American Football album from 2019 pushed me into realizing is that there is something about “emo music,” if you were immersed in it at all at any point in your life, that you outgrow, yes, but there is also something about it, whether you want to or not, or even know it or not, that you take with you as you age.
There is something about it that is always with you.
And that as you enter your mid to late 30s, you certainly do not become any less emotional of a person, and much to my surprise, American Football and “I’ve Been So Lost For So Long” wound up being the things that revealed there is a way back into the genre at a different, much later time in your life.
What it revealed, and what I eventually not so much came to terms with but maybe became more accepting of the very notion is that “emo kids” turn into “emo adults,” there is a place for that, and there is music for that kind of person.
I had gotten into this slightly when, in 2019, I went back and revisited Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity, upon its 20th anniversary, a band and more importantly an album I arrived at a little late, but it would have also been during my freshman year in college, maybe even within the first week of school but I am maybe remembering this all wrong, when I was introduced to the band The Juliana Theory—a pseudo-Christian emo band that had, the year prior, released the now iconic Emotion is Dead, their second full-length.
The person who introduced me to the band was the same person who had, near the end of the first semester, sliding into a long, cold December, pushed a copy of Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity across the cafeteria table to me, and told me to take a listen—Mike, who was in his final year in college when I was in my first.
A CD-R of Emotion is Dead, in a green, slimline jewel case, with a handwritten tracklist, was one of the albums that soundtracked that first year of college, as was the band’s follow up EP, Music From Another Room, which was issued that fall, and I had purchased around the end of 2001.
The group famously signed a deal with Epic Records, and released their only major label effort, Love, in the winter of early 2003—I remember asking a friend with a car to drive me to Target so I could buy it on the Tuesday it came out.
I would have been in the second half of my sophomore year at this point, and by then, I would have identified as a huge fan of the band, and had more or less embraced the idea of being an “emo kid.” A black Juliana Theory t-shirt with the band’s name in gold letters and a graphic of maroon headphones, purchased at Hot Topic, found its way into my t-shirt rotation, and I had even gone so far as to order a messenger bag from their website, adorned with a silhouette of one of the group’s guitar players striking a very rock ’n’ roll pose.
Maybe my tastes were already changing by 2003, but Love did not connect with me the way Emotion is Dead did, and shortly thereafter, I lost track of the band completely. They released one more full-length in 2005 before disbanding, only to have, as many bands do, reunite on and off, usually in celebration of some kind of milestone—like the 10th anniversary of Emotion is Dead, or the 20th anniversary of the band’s formation.
The first two years, for sure, and probably even more than that if I am being honest, of writing that I did for Anhedonic Headphones, is rough, (like really rough) and I am remiss to go back and revisit those pieces. But maybe this is not the right time, or place, to be critical of the early pieces I was generating.
Maybe it’s easier to say this was time that I spent developing my “voice” as a writer.
I had a lot of time, and a lot more energy, during the first year and even into the second, and I would give consideration to more artists and albums, rather than laboring over a review for over a week, making sure I got every pause and transition just right, or making sure I didn’t use the word “evocative” too many times—and in the summer of 2013, I wrote a piece where I did two, very short, piss take reviews to emo albums that had been recently released: The Greatest Generation by The Wonder Years, and Knots by Crash of Rhinos.
There were a lot of ideas buried in that piece I could have, at the time, put a little more effort into developing rather than being cute and sardonic, I opted not to make those developments, perhaps because I was not as thoughtful, or articulate or a writer as I am now—it’s very casually written, and doesn’t take itself seriously all. Somewhere along the way of the last eight years, I lost my sense of humor about all of this, and what I remember the most about this piece is that there is a part of if where I make fun of the name “Crash of Rhinos,” and that someone (allegedly) from the band commented on it, alerting me to the fact that a “crash” of rhinos is the way you describe a group of rhinos—like how you would use the expression “a murder of crows.”
One of the ideas that is present throughout that piece is my disbelief, at the time, that emo bands still existed in 2013, and that people were still listening. Somewhere along the way of the last eight years, I lost my sense of humor about all of this, and now I completely understand both both emo bands still exist and the dual purposes they serve, and that even though it took me a long time to see it and understand, that there is a way back into the genre.
It’s a genre that I have written about enough, yes, though what I have realized is that I have written about it more than I originally thought, but that “emo music,” or a least my relationship with it, has informed a lot my writing—especially within the last year, and also the way I listen, both for leisure, and with a critical, analytical ear.
What I had forgotten about, and perhaps rightfully so, was the coverage I had given to the now defunct band Sorority Noise in 2017, with the release of their breakthrough album You’re Not As _______ As You Think, and it’s acoustic companion piece, YNAAYT, which was issued a year later. The band, at that point was already planning to take a “hiatus” due to the declining mental health of frontman Cam Boucher, more or less came to a somewhat abrupt end because of allegations of sexual assault against Boucher.
What I had forgotten about, and perhaps rightfully so, was the piece I wrote about Science Fiction, the long gestating “final” album from the band Brand New, from 2017, released a year before the band had always intended to call it quits anyway—the “final” album because, by year’s end, Brand New’s singer and guitarist Jesse Lacey was outed for predatory behavior, including sexual misconduct with minors, that had occurred throughout his professional life.
It’s a genre that I have written about enough, yes, and there are moments now when I surprise myself with how I have been able to slowly, and cautiously, find my way back into the genre.
Like a lot of music that I at the very least am compelled to look into, and often am floored by what I have heard, I was introduced to the group Future Teens through Hanif Aburraqib’s Instagram Stories, where, around the time of its release in March, he talked about the excellence of the band’s new EP, Deliberately Alive.
In a WBUR piece regarding the band, of its history, Future Teens’ origin is half in earnest, half in jest, and described as originally forming under the auspice of a “high school band that reunited in their 20s, but continued playing their juvenile repertoire.” Founded less than a decade ago, and having gone through a series of line up changes already, at the core of Future Teens is the devastating and self-effacing give and take between the group’s two guitarists and co-vocalists, Daniel Radin and Amy Hoffman.
Self-identified as “bummer pop,” Future Teens, like a number of up and coming groups right now, are blurring the line between what you would call “indie rock,” or what you could call “emo”—the group’s output, including its two full lengths, Hard Feelings and Break Up Season are sonically reminiscent of the emo that I grew up listening to as an overweight, sullen teenager, before the genre or “scene” were things I was even aware of.
There is an exuberance to the band’s arranging at times, yes, but what makes a group like Future Teens appealing to a specific demographic of people—adults in search of emotional music—is the way both Hoffman and Radin play with humor, mostly dark, but sometimes not; that combination creates for an uneasy, fascinating tension they refuse to resolve.
It should come as no surprise that when I was looking for background information on the band, one of the more recent articles regarding Future Teens, and the Deliberately Alive EP describes it as something that “explores the darkest corners of mental health.”
There’s a very recent interview from the publication American Songwriter with The Juliana Theory’s frontman Brett Detar, where he talks about how easy it was, and how quickly the band, during their initial run in the early 2000s, they got “carried away” with overdubbing layers and effects; in retrospect, it’s very easy to hear that.
I had a thought not all that long ago about The Juliana Theory, shortly after I discovered the group had officially reunited—now billed as a duo, comprised of Detar and guitarist Joshua Fiedler. And that thought was about how, when I was all of 18 or 19, I didn’t think much of it at all, but 20 years later, I’ve realized that yes, the band’s output was certainly very “emotional,” but it was also very dramatic and theatrical at times. In realizing that now, at the age I am, the sprawling, bombastic “Piano Song,” for example, taken from the Music From Another Room EP, is just silly.
Like, it takes itself so seriously, but retrospectively speaking it is an absolutely ridiculous song in the way it is structured and performed.
But the thing I am not certain of is if the band, at the time, were in on the joke, or if they wanted to make something that bombastic and dramatic in complete earnestness.
The band officially called it a day in 2006, and haven’t performed together as a full five-piece since their 2017 reunion shows. Detar and Fiedler had booked shows in 2019, playing the band’s catalog as an “acoustic duo,” and I stop short of saying you can barely hear that in their new EP, A Dream Away, but there are hints of it, buried underneath new things that they may have gotten “carried away” with while recording.
A Dream Away contains one of the band’s two new songs, the dramatic and hopeful “Better Now,” with an additional seven songs from the Juliana Theory canon “reimagined” to fit within the Detar’s and Fiedler’s new musical aesthetic.
The group’s first reunion single, “Can’t Go Home,” is not included in this collection, which is probably for the best; not because it’s a bad song, but because it literally doesn’t sound like The Juliana Theory at all. It’s a slinky, synth heavy track that is, throughout its running time, perpetually trying to find the space between contemporary and accessible indie rock that you might hear on a NPR affiliate, and a big Top 40 vibe.
On A Dream Away, the duo mostly scales that back (there is one moment of near whimsy though, midway through, with “We’re At The Top of The World”) but the deeper the EP gets into the classic Juliana Theory material—Detar and Fiedler mined four songs from Emotion is Dead, two from their debut Understand This is A Dream, and one from the maligned Love, the more sonic layers they have piled on, not to the point where the effort is going to buckle under its own musical weight, but there is a lot going on here.
Despite the dizzying and complicated nature of these arrangements, A Dream Away, as one might have anticipated based on how it is presented, is full of beautiful nostalgia.
Brett Detar is around five years older than I am, and for someone who spent roughly a decade both shredding his vocal cords when he needed to, as well as letting his voice emotively soar as high as it could, time has been incredibly kind to him.
Like, incredibly kind.
His voice has aged with the kind of grace that is difficult to put into words. Detar sings in a little bit of a lower register now, but that is not because he no longer has the range he once did—his voice is simply just lower, because he’s no longer in his early 20s. And it isn’t that he wasn’t a confident vocalist during the original run of The Juliana Theory, but the presentation of his voice, blended with the frenetic energy of the music and the group’s famously tight and layered harmonies, just kind of lent itself to the youth-oriented exuberance and emotion of the time.
But he sounds a lot wiser now, and exponentially more confident across A Dream Away, as he takes command in new, surprising ways with these classic tunes.
And it is, of course, the classic tunes—specifically the songs pulled from Emotion is Dead that make this such an invigorating, captivating, gorgeous, and a dangerously wistful listen.
For the fans that were around before the band’s breakthrough, and stuck it out through the slow end, Detar and Fiedler selected “Bring it Low” from Love, then “Duane Joseph” and “Constellation” from their 1999 debut.
“Bring it Low,” the opening track from Love did not connect with me in 2003 when the album was originally released—heavily snarling with a “hard rock” guitar and pummeling drums. It, like a bulk of that album, seemingly lacked the thoughtfulness The Juliana Theory were capable of; but within the context of the reconstructed arrangement on A Dream Away, the song is much more palatable.
Here, it’s among the most slow burning and perhaps one of the moodiest reinterpretations. The chugging electric guitar has been replaced with a gently plucked acoustic, quiet and contemplative piano keys, and a bed of pensive atmospherics that all of this glistens across the top of.
Detar’s voice, much more mature than it was in 2003, comes off as a lot less bratty or sneering as he delivers the verses and knows just how much restraint to use, and then knows exactly how far to let his voice soar when the song arrives at the chorus.
The more time I have spent with A Dream Away, I’ve realized that it structurally front loaded with maybe the most nostalgic and at least the best executed reinterpretations—the effort doesn’t necessarily lose momentum or direction in the latter half, but “Constellation” brings the pacing down considerably (and perhaps intentionally) with how stirring and dramatic it is, but “Duane Joseph,” an ode to teenage friendship and angst, has, as expected, not aged very well lyrically (especially when the person singing it is well over 20 years removed from when it was written), and the miscast use of a vocoder on Detar’s vocals brings the effort to an abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion.
Of course, the subjectively “best” parts of A Dream Away, or the most nostalgically thrilling to hear are the reimagined songs from Emotion is Dead—two of which were among the hardest, most aggressive on the record, but Detar and Fiedler have turned both “If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop?” and “Is Patience Still Waiting?” inward with ease and elegance. “Patience,” specifically, is a standout on this collection simply from how the duo took a song originally based around distended, hard edged guitars and a larynx destroying scream, and deconstructed it to something this delicate and swooning.
Of course, the subjectively “best” part of A Dream Away, or the most nostalgically thrilling to hear is the collection’s second track—perhaps arguably The Juliana Theory’s most iconic song, “Into The Dark,” which was both the captivating opening track on Emotion is Dead, as well as re-recorded and tucked into the final portion of Love.
Over two decades after it was first recorded, and perhaps it is because I have such a strong connection to it, but Detar and Fiedler can still breath urgency, life, and drama into this song. And it is, of course, this song that sold me completely on this EP, even when it does falter slightly; like so many of the songs on A Dream Away, “Into The Dark” is weighed down with myriad layers including sweeping flourishes of orchestral instrumentation and atmospherics that swirl around throughout, but it works, and it works wonders, especially when all of the elements come together in a dizzying, gorgeous cacophony that ascends as the song heads into its final, emotional moments.
In a conversation with a friend recently, I was asked to try and explain the difference between feeling “seen” and “attacked.” Without getting into too much detail, I told her the best example would be from a Lana Del Rey song—and I suppose that, if pressed to elaborate further, the opening lines to “Separated Anxiety” from the Deliberately Alive EP would, perhaps, be an even more apt example.
Seemingly coming out of a deep breath in, Daniel Radin opens the song by gently, and firmly, singing, “Found a good way to pass for fine here in the corners of my mind. Simply say, ‘Yeah, I’m all right,’ and maybe under think instead this time. So I’ve practice and I’ve tried to keep the ugly stuff inside…so when I said ‘I don’t hate myself I guess—I’m just tired and overwhelmed,’ at least I’m glad I finally said something I felt.”
It should come as no surprise that, in a word, Future Teens’ Deliberately Alive EP is heartbreaking—even when it concludes with a very sincere, downcast cover of Cher’s iconic comeback single “Believe”—the emotional devastation with which Radin and Amy Hoffman sing the song is visceral; and the emotional devastation with which they write and sing the effort’s four original tracks from is simply unbelievable, and at times breathtaking.
It is, like all good, emotionally charged music, the kind of thing that, even with as short of a running time as it has, becomes a mirror that illuminates and reflects the parts of ourselves we might not want to see, or at times, are desperately trying to outrun.
“I’m not sure which one I fear worst,” Hoffman states near the end of the jittery, energetic “Guest Room.” “Going young or getting old.” And while the latter half of the Deliberately Alive EP scales back on the band’s power pop enthusiasm in the arrangements, which allows the very staggering darkness of the lyrics to come through, it takes a few listens through of “Guest Room” to get to what the song is about, and when it finally hits you, it really hits you.
With as relatively new of a band as Future Teens are, the uncanny knack for dressing up a song about the fragility of mental health and the awareness of your own mortality in something so infectious that, at first or second listen, the depth of the lyrics don’t even really register, is more than commendable—it’s astonishing.
Lyrically, the song is intelligent enough to inject just a little bit of humor in the otherwise stark subject matter. “I don’t even have a guest room yet—how can I expect to die like that?,” Hoffman asks in the song’s opening line. “With space that’s shared, and rent that’s due, when it’s still my turn to vacuum.”
Hoffman continues with the humor (“I pay somebody on the internet to talk through things I don’t know how to fix”) until the song reaches the turning point near its conclusion, where the phrase “Going young or getting old” is interjected between poignant reflections: “I’ll take whatever comes first,” “It’s not like I had a say in being born,” and perhaps the hardest, but also the most honest one to hear, “I’m not convinced I deserve either one anymore.”
The first two songs on Deliberately Alive are extremely personal, yes, and the rest of the album isn’t any less personal, though Radin becomes mildly self-aware or at least self-referential on “Play Cool,” and Hoffman weaves some ambiguity into the harrowing narrative of “Bizarre Affection.”
“Crying outside of the venue, aptly named where I fell to,” Radin confesses on “Play Cool,” then later becomes even more brutally honest—“I probably should mention my intention at the time was mostly to see how drunk I could get in a half hour set—that’s all music meant to me.” “Play Cool” isn’t a “break up song,” but it, like “Bizarre Affection,” are about relationships that are, perhaps, beyond repair, and the regretful ruminations that come when that time is becoming smaller and smaller in a rearview mirror. “I wish I didn’t say that—I wanna stay happy out of context,” Radin sings in the song’s refrain. “But I got scared and you were so mad. Let’s skip to the end and work our way back.”
Then perhaps the song’s most harrowing assessment: “From a distance we were still friends but too close to see what was coming.”
In the fall of 2020, I wrote a somewhat extensive piece on the debut effort from Cartalk, Pass Like Pollen; and in it, I described the album as the space where alt-country and emo surprisingly converged. I meant that with sincerity, but was concerned how Chuck Moore might take that—it turns out that they were totally fine with it and even agreed to some extent.
You don’t hear it as much in “Guest Room,” but there is a strong twang in Hoffman’s voice on the somber, remorseful “Bizarre Affection,” with the song’s arrangement shimmering arrangement sees them, and the rest of the group, beginning to walk that line between emo with the slightest hint of alt-country. And that twang certainly emphasizes the heartbreak Hoffman has woven into the narrative of the song.
“I still can’t forget about that night in Connecticut when I laid on the ground and begged for an answer,” they sing within the song’s first refrain, then responding later on—“I’ve tried to forget about that night on the lower east when I cried at the bar while you gave me your answer.”
“But I won’t forget about that night in Sennott Park,” Hoffman continues near the end of the song, then delivers maybe the most devastating line of the whole EP. “When you said you’re in love with and that’s why it’s over.”
What I realized, and maybe it’s something I never really gave a lot of thought to when considering the very notion of “emo” music in 2021, but what I realized is there are two somewhat distinct types of emo—there are countless places where they overlap, yes, but it is the differences that are possibly more important.
“I’d give you my hand if you’d reach out and grab it,” Brett Detar proclaimed over 20 years ago on the emotionally dramatic and hopeful “Into The Dark.” “Let’s walk away from this hell,” he implores.
And that’s the difference. Or, at least, the difference here, when not even comparing these two albums, and the bands responsible for them, but being able take a step back to see both The Juliana Theory and Future Teens as bands operating within the same genre, but on extremely opposite ends of it—running parallel to one another with barely any places of intersection.
There was always a hopefulness buried within the music of The Juliana Theory—maybe it’s the pseudo-Christian nature that the band was founded upon, or was never really able to shake in the early days. I think about the theatrical, enormous conclusion to “Piano Song,” when the instrumentation drops out for a moment and it’s just Detar’s voice and a piano—“I watched as you sat with a cigarette in your hand, holding a drink in the other, trying to drown all your pain,” and as almost satirical as the music is when it comes back in and swallows the song, it’s the unabashed feeling of hope that I had never really given a second thought to, but it is, quite possibly, one of the most positive and uplifting things I’ve heard in a pop song—
“I believe in you—your time is coming…there’s a life ahead—your time is coming. Don’t let go tonight!”
The youthful exuberance with which the band tackled this is long gone now, but Detar and Fiedler tap back into that positivity with the opening song to A Dream Away, “Better Now,” and even references similar imagery. “I know when you’re on a bender that you’re just searching for peace.”
“Better Now” truthfully plays out, the further you get into it, like something from a self-help book, but the duo really do their best to sell both the spectacle and the longing through the brooding and swirling piano, and the way Detar bellows the song’s refrain: “‘Cause it is gettin better now—HOLD ON!”
What I realized, and maybe it’s something I never really gave a lot of thought to when considering the very notion of “emo” music in 2021, but what I realized is there are two somewhat distinct types of emo—and there is one that I prefer over the other.
The Juliana Theory, and A Dream Away, is gorgeous, yes, but it is also almost entirely steeped in nostalgia—which is fine, because there is a time and a place for that, and it is so beautifully presented and arranged that it is, admittedly, almost too easy to be swept up in that feeling. But I don’t know if this is the time or the place for that and I hesitate to say that the Deliberately Alive EP is a collection of hopeless songs, but Future Teens do a more accurate, or at least a much more honest job, or depicting what it means to be emotional at this very moment.
There are flashes of humor, certainly, and that kind of a reprieve is welcome, but the band is absolutely arresting in the way they have navigated the fragility of mental health, a life full of potential heartbreaks, and the uncertainty that comes from the human condition, no matter how old you might be.
A Dream Away is out now on CD via Equal Vision; the eight different vinyl variants, limited to 100 copies each, are all sold out.
Deliberately Alive is also out now on CD via Take This to Heart; a vinyl edition of the album will be shipping in May.