Tell All Your Friends Where You Want to Be
Rolling Stone once profiled the 100 Best Debut Albums of All Time. The first album an artist releases has the power to propel them into our cultural zeitgeist seemingly overnight. But as a music fan, what’s compelled my curiosity, are the bands whose sophomore attempts become their best work.
For decades, bands with amazing debut albums have gone on to suffer from “the sophomore slump”—releasing sub par or disappointing second records. But there are bands who end up putting out their best work with their second album: Alice in Chains, Radiohead, Nirvana, and A Tribe Called Quest to name a few.
And as much as I love their first album, after a discussion with my friend John Romaniello, I have to admit: Taking Back Sunday’s second album, Where You Want to Be, is better than their first record. (And in many ways, it may be their best work.)
Tell All Your Friends holds a special place in my heart, and it would be the first album I’d grab if I could only listen to 10 albums for the rest of my life. It’s important to me because Adam Lazzara attended my high school for a few years, which gave me the hope that I could escape my small town and still accomplish great things. And, there’s something about the music and lyrics (including the greatest love lyrics ever written) that helped define much of who I was in high school.
But here’s how I view the first two Taking Back Sunday albums: Tell All Your Friends (TAYF) is high school; Where You Want to Be (WYWB) is leaving your parents to live in your own space, but discovering that you never really escape high school.
In high school, there’s this overwhelming feeling that you can’t really defend yourself, you’re still not 100% independent, and more often than not, there’s this pervading feeling that it’s “You vs The World.” Or put another way: you feel defenseless, dependent, and alone.
As an adolescent, adulthood, even with its responsibilities, is often the place you wanted to be: a destination that means more freedom, independence, and an escape from the crushing world of high school hijinx.
Except those teenage feelings don’t evaporate once you toss your graduation cap. They continue to reverberate throughout most of your early 20s. And if you listen to Where You Want to Be, that’s what you hear: a more mature sounding band musically, but lyrically echoing angsty teenagers stuck in the same emotional cycle. Or as Adam so eloquently points out in the song, I Am Fred Astaire: “older, and wiser, still live with resentment.”
The Album That Almost Never Was
That mature sound almost never happened for Taking Back Sunday, though. In the winter of 2003, John Nolan—founding member, backup singer, and guitarist—along with bassist Shaun Cooper, left Taking Back Sunday; they would later form Straylight Run, and then return to TBS in 2010. According to rumors, Adam had been dating Nolan’s sister, who provided vocals on TAYF, and had presumably been unfaithful in their relationship. (Clearly, blood is thicker than water)
On the brink of breaking up, Adam and the rest of the crew began auditioning and reaching out to friends to join the band. They added Fred Mascherino on guitar and backup vocals, and Matt Rubano replaced Cooper as the bass player. Both Fred and Matt had attended jazz college, which allowed TBS a more diverse musical background to pull inspiration from.
And since Fred and Matt knew their instruments like Varys knows the happenings of Kings Landing, the quality of the guitar and bass in WYWB is cleaner, crisper, more cohesive, and frankly, provides TBS with the sound of a tried-and-true rock band.
Besides the technical improvements of the album, there are a few key places where WYWB stands apart from TAYF: drums, lyrics, and the overall cohesive sound.
When you listen to the music of the pop-punk or emo scene of the late 90s, you’ll hear something that all the drummers of that era share: a heavy reliance on bashing the shit out of their ride or crash cymbals. Early Blink-182 sounds like Travis is a happy-go-lucky 4-year-old banging away on pots and pans on his kitchen floor.
And when you listen to the drums on TAYF, you hear this strong reliance on ride and crash cymbals. “You Know How I Do” kicks off the album with damn near 60-seconds of O’Connell smashing his cymbal like he’s screaming, “Hey! We’re here, and you will listen to what we have to say. Because I’m gonna hit this cymbal until you pay attention to me.”
But on WYWB, there’s far less reliance on aggressive cymbal bashing. That doesn’t mean O’Connell foregoes using the cymbals. They’re still there in most choruses or breakdowns, and of course in a few intros—they are an important tool. But they’re less aggressive, more composed, and strategic than haphazard.
Again, if you look at TYAF as the high school kid who’s dependent on others for his identity, it makes sense that O’Connell would crash the hell out of his cymbals. Because at the time, that’s what all the “cool” kids were doing.
But if you look at WYWB as that same teen out in the world—independent and experimenting—moving toward his own identity as a mature adult, then it’s easy to see that during this process, O’Connell matured as a drummer.
Since their formation in 1999, TBS has had numerous members amongst its ranks. And every emo fan knows of the feud between one-time member Jesse Lacey, who later went on to found Brand New, and founding member John Nolan. That one incident went on to fuel numerous songs written by Lacey and Nolan.
For the most part, the lyrics in TAYF were co-written by Nolan and Lazzara. But Nolan’s departure left Adam with the responsibility of writing the lyrics for the second album. And lyrically, WYWB shows massive growth from Adam as a lyricist. The departure of Nolan and Cooper, along with Adam’s relationship misdeeds, may have provided him with the right amount of fuel to spark his own creativity as a songwriter.
Lyrically, you’re still getting a ton of the aches and pains of love, lost friendship, and betrayal. But some of what Adam deals with on this album covers topics like drug abuse, that gut wrenching realization that the world isn’t what you thought it was, the pain of unkept promises, and in the final track of WYWB,“...Slowdance on the Inside,” Adam flexes his muscles as a clever wordsmith—solidifying himself as a legitimate, thoughtful, and creative lyricist.
Again, if follow my running theme here, TBS has graduated, they’re maturing into adulthood. They may have similar themes as they did with TAYF, but their lyrics are deeper, more finely tuned, and show a maturity that comes from more of life’s experiences.
The big thing that Where You Want to Be does that Tell All Your Friends fails to execute upon is cohesiveness. Besides the angsty teenage driven lyrics of TAYF, musically, there’s very little cohesiveness in the overall voice of the album. But that makes sense if you look at TAYF as the unmatured teenager.
Teenage thought processes, for the most part, lack cohesiveness. In a matter of seconds, you could change how you think, or what you believe, because you either wanted to fit in, felt attacked and couldn’t defend yourself, or because you were trying to impress someone.
Examining and solidifying your thoughts and beliefs into a more coherent and cohesive package is a sign of maturity; that could be debatable in today’s world, however. Still, as we enter adulthood, venturing away from the safety of Mom and Dad, we’re hopefully exploring and piecing together our identity.
And for a band that was on the brink of destruction, TBS needed to show, not only the world but themselves, that they could mature as a band with a more unified sound.
They accomplished this cohesiveness in both the musicality and the storytelling side of the lyrics. The first three tracks of WYWB seize you by the scruff of your neck and refuse to let go until Adam has screamed his lungs out at the end of “A Decade Under The Influence.” Only then do they slow it down with “Photograph,” and even then they only slightly take their foot off the gas; it’s as if they’ve strapped you into this emotional roller coaster and said, “you’re coming on this topsy-turvy thrill ride with us no matter what.”
Like all good roller coasters, the album gives you a break from the emotional highs with “New American Classic.” It’s here, in the second part of the album, where the cohesiveness really shines through.
Corkscrews and Loop-da-Loops
Whether this was intentional or not, I don’t know. But, when the CD was released, on the back of the booklet, they had an A and a B side listed. At the time, I thought this was an homage to cassettes and vinyl of the past. What I didn’t realize until now, is that when you examine the lyrics of each song, it’s as if each side is telling a slightly different emotional aspect of the singer’s story.
In the beginning, there’s the anger, pain, and frustration between the vocalist and the girl he’s singing about. He’s screwed up; she’s screwed up; they pass blame on one another or onto their friends; they want to be with each other, but there’s this prevailing feeling that things are heading in a terrible direction. Adam and the band takes us on his tumultuous emotional roller coaster both lyrically and musically.
Now, you could look at “The Union” as a “break-up” song. But since it’s most likely Adam throwing shade at Nolan and Cooper, we’ll leave that song as a one off from the singer’s relationship issues. “New American Classic”, however, is that moment in the story where the two characters of this album have broken up. They lament about their failed relationship, and they want to get back together. But there’s this looming elephant in the room that they just can’t get past.
What happens after that? Well, like all of us at a young age, we get back together with our ex, hoping we can work it all out.
Pardon the Interruption
And then, as if to say, “we apologize for that brief interruption, now let’s get back to the ride,“ “I Am Fred Astaire” opens with a guitar squeal that signals it’s showtime. And then TBS jumps right back into their punchy melodic riffs, heavy bass drum beats, and Adam’s yearning vocals.
Side-B, however, is less aggressive. It’s not wholly somber, either, but it’s also not screaming in your face. The four tracks after “New American Classic” carry this almost hopeless sense of impending doom to the singer’s relationship.
Adam compares the relationship to a drug addiction, confesses that if they continue this way “they’ll die miserable and old,” and “Little Devotional” is about hiding infidelity from prying eyes. Then it all comes together in an emotional crescendo, the final loop-de-loop on the coaster, with “…Slowdance on the Inside.”
Two years transpired between TAYF and WYWB, and a lot can happen in two years. But considering that this album was recorded in only a couple of months, it’s likely that the lyrics for WYWB reflect only a few months of the struggles in Adam’s life.
So maybe he did cheat on Nolan’s sister, and what we hear in these songs is his struggle of falling in love with his paramour, the dangers that relationship presented, and the conflict welling inside of him of being torn between two women.
Whatever the reasons for the lyrics, TBS delivered a cohesive sound lyrically and musically that helps WYWB stand the test of time. It’s not as raw as TAYF, and that’s okay. Musicians should mature. You can’t always play the same old crap year after year; it gets stale for fans, and it creates stagnation for an artist.
TAYF will forever and always be an album I put on, sing at the top of my lungs, and refeel all those high school feels. And though I felt disappointed at the time when WYWB was released, I now realize more than a decade later, and after a discussion with a good friend, that WYWB is a far better album—possibly their best.
Where You Want to Be still holds up musically and lyrically nearly 13 years after its release. And now that I’ve had time to develop as an adult, I can appreciate the more mature sounding band that TBS became while writing and producing this album. This was their first steps into adulthood and the first example that they were able to achieve what some of their other compatriots were not: the ability to mature as a rock band.