Album Review: The Get Up Kids - Problems

20 years ago, when I was a sullen, overweight high school junior, I discovered The Get Up Kids thanks to catching their video for “Action and Action” on an episode of “120 Minutes”—I used to tape it on Sunday evenings, then watch it when I got home from school on Monday afternoon. Growing up in rural Illinois, in a time when I didn’t read a lot of music press outside of the issues of Rolling Stone that were delivered to me every other week, I had no clue what ‘emo’ music was—I wouldn’t until two years later, during my freshman year in college.

I didn’t know that The Get Up Kids were ‘emo’—maybe a little punky in their early material, I, at 16, in all my infinite wisdom, just thought they were ‘alternative rock.’

They were a band I glommed onto heavily during the winter between 1999 and the year 2000—I bought the Red Letter Day EP from the very small, local record store in my town, then, shortly after Christmas, got a copy of the band’s breakthrough second album, Something to Write Home About, from a different record store in the next largest city over; at some point around the same time, I ordered their debut, Seven Minute Mile online, as well as an extra large, navy blue hooded sweatshirt, with the band’s name screen printed on the front in yellow letters.

I don’t have that sweatshirt anymore—even if I did, you could fit at least, like, two of me into something that shapeless and gigantic. The girl that I was involved with for three of my four years in college claimed ownership of it for some reason—maybe she liked the color or the design on the front; I don’t think she had a strong opinion about the band either way. After I had ended our relationship, she eventually asked if I wanted it back—I told her to keep it.

A number of years ago, I re-glommed onto the band, purchasing Seven Minute Mile and Something to Write Home About on vinyl—revisiting my emo past as someone in their early 30s. I hadn’t thought about it for a long time, but I started wondering whatever became of that sweatshirt—if she still has it, or if she purged it at somewhere along the way, thrown away in anger at what a trash person I turned out to be, or donated to a Goodwill.

I didn’t realize that The Get Up Kids had such a tumultuous career during their initial run—the sudden success of Something to Write Home About propelled them into a level they were not expecting, and as they have reflected in recent interviews, were not ready for. Burned out playing songs from their first two records, night after night, while endlessly touring, the band wrote their 2002 effort, On A Wire, in the studio—something they hadn’t done until that point. It was a dramatic 180 from the sound they had become synonymous with, and it was an attempt to shake the ‘emo’ tag that had been following closely behind since the band’s inception.

On A Wire failed to connect with the band’s fan base—alienating those who had been with them since the beginning, but it was critically lauded for the maturation in sound. The band, more or less, also started falling apart internally around this time, with tensions between the members rising. Things, apparently, became much worse as the band recorded and tried to tour behind what was, at the time, their final album, 2004’s Guilt Show, which I bought from a Wal-Mart in Dubuque, Iowa, the summer during my junior and senior year in college; I don’t know why I bought it, or what happened to it after that. I remember none of the songs off of it.

I lost track of the band after this, but their Wikipedia details the tensions getting to a point where members were threatening to quit, and their live show becoming a mess with people, more or less, refusing to play. They originally broke up in 2005, but reunited four years later in celebration of the tenth anniversary of Something to Write Home About.

The band members, who had more or less all gone on to other projects, began working on new material—an EP surfaced in 2010, with a new full length arriving at the beginning of 2011, entitled There Are Rules. The cover art looked liked something more in line with an album by, say, Yeasayer, rather than emo pioneers—and the music, for me, at this time, was almost unlistenable.

It’s that attitude that almost kept me away from The Get Up Kids’ new album, Problems—arriving eight years after There Are Rules, and 20 years after their most iconic album, I wasn’t sure I wanted to expose myself to another record of intentionally distorted and compressed vocals and instrumentation, with insincere synthesizers twinkling over the top of it.

The emo kid in you never really goes away—it just grows up, but if an album made a big enough impact on you, you still carry that with you through time, and if that artist or band puts out a new album, years and years later, there is still a morbid curiosity inside of you that wants to listen.

I stop short of saying Problems is a ‘return to form’ for the band, because I don’t know if that term applies to The Get Up Kids—they bent over backwards to get as far away as they could from the sound they helped cultivate in the late 1990s, and destroyed themselves in the process. The members, now all in their early 40s, can’t exactly sing about ‘teenage feelings’ anymore the way they did when they were in their late teens and early 20s; however, if the last two American Football records taught me anything, it is that the emo kid in you never goes away—it grows up, and rather than teenage feelings, it’s replaced with the crushing weight of adult feelings.

Problems is not nearly as dark of a record as the third self-titled effort from American Football, and it’s an album that forgoes the generic public radio ‘indie rock’ sound the band fell prey to in 2011, and has more in common with, believe it or not, the highly energized and melodic songwriting and arranging of Something to Write Home About.

You can hear it right out of the gate with the album’s opening track, “Satellite”—one of Problems’ strongest tracks, opening with strummy acoustic guitar, the song explodes into familiar, exuberant territory by the time it hits the first chorus. However, I hesitate to say that it’s an energy, or feeling, that the band is not able to maintain, but the structure and pacing of Problems finds The Get Up Kids struggling with the balance between a sound and aesthetic reflecting who they are now (adults in their 40s) and the sound and aesthetic of who they were and what they tried to distance themselves from.

The album’s near titular track is not a misfire, per se, but it’s not one of the strongest in the set, though you can tell it desperately wants to be infectious; its subsequent track, “Salina,” slows things down, powered by shuffling percussion and a fuzzed out bass line courtesy of Rob Pope, who, after the original break up of the band, became a full time member of Spoon. The song itself finds the band falling, almost too easily, into the melancholic territory of songs like “My Apology,” from Something to Write Home About, right down to overall tone, the delivery of Matt Pryor’s vocals, and even the somber twinkling of James Dewees electric piano.

The band continues to mine that melancholic feeling on “Common Ground,” another one of Problems’ most successful tracks, arriving in the album’s second half. Opening with a glitchy progression of synthesizers, additional atmospherics, and guitar effects, Pryor sounds absolutely dejected on the song’s opening line—“One day the kids will have a clue,” he sings, as he laments rather frankly about the passage of time.

Shortly there after, on “The Advocate,” the band manages to find what is almost that perfect balance—the emotional aesthetic of their earlier material with the maturity that comes from this second iteration from the band. The moody synthesizers that punctuate throughout the song are juxtaposed by crunchy electric guitars, pummeling drumming, and a structure to the songwriting and vocal delivery that instantly feels familiar.

Problems concludes with “Your Ghost is Gone,” which is the kind of song that seems like from the moment the band began writing it, it was intended to be the final song on the album. Echoing the iconic closing track to Something to Write Home About, “I’ll Catch You,” “Your Ghost is Gone” opens with a pensive sounding piano before it builds to an volatile, albeit short, conclusion—a fleeting moment of catharsis in a surprisingly stark break up song—“I can’t throw away the last pieces of you,” Pryor sings in the final moments, “Because if I do, you’d really be gone.”

The Get Up Kids haven’t been ‘kids’ for a while, but The Get Up Adults doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue. Giving themselves this second chance as a band, they are still struggling to find their musical identity between both an aversion and unconscious attraction to what they were, while grappling with maturation and what they may want to be.

Even when it falters—the songs written and sung by The Get Up Kids’ other guitarist and vocalist, Jim Stupic, are among the those that fight against Pryor’s urge to drift back into conversant territory; Stupic’s direct contributions aren’t unlistenable, but they are just not as successfully executed, though the bombastic, power pop-leaning “Now or Never” is among the most highly galvanized among the album’s 12 tracks—Problems is a commendable effort that wound up being, much to my surprise, an enjoyable, and at times even emotional (but of course), listen from beginning to end. A worthwhile listen for anyone who was a fan of the band during the early days of their original run, as well as anyone still lugging around an emo kid deep inside of them somewhere.

Problems is out now via Polyvinyl.