In 1997, punk continued its ascendance as grunge rescinded, but college radio had yet to embrace the bands popping up all over the country rising from the ashes of Washington, DC’s founding emo artists like Rites of Spring and Embrace. With Dischord as the blueprint, labels such as Initial, Deep Elm, and Crank! had been doing their part to create a groundswell. Delaware-based Jade Tree was rapidly becoming the center of the second wave, releasing classic records from Jets to Brazil, Lifetime, Pedro the Lion, and the Promise Ring, whose star was rising fast. Their first full-length, 30 Degrees Everywhere, was a surprise success, selling the entire run of records produced for a tour at one show in New York.
The Promise Ring formed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after the breakup of another canonical group from the era, Cap’n Jazz, whose other band members went on to found seminal second wavers American Football. Jason Gnewikow and Matt Mangan had played together in None Left Standing, and Dan Didier and Scott Beschta had been in Ceilishrine. Mangan moved, and the band picked up Davey von Bohlen.
On 11 October 1997, the Promise Ring returned with Nothing Feels Good, which saw them pushing into poppier territory while retaining the punk roots of their first record. In 2019, Rolling Stone named Nothing Feels Good the third-best emo album of all time, bested only by Rites of Spring and Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary. The initial response to Nothing Feels Good was widespread praise, including a slot on the New York Times Albums of the Year list. It became one of the first emo records to break through on college radio, paving the way for the next few years of success for peers and frequent tourmates like Jimmy Eat World and the Get Up Kids, and then the next wave of 2000s emo.
Nothing Feels Good is a significant step up in production over 30 Degrees Everywhere. The Promise Ring worked with J. Robbins of Jawbox/Burning Airlines fame, whose production became a seal of approval in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Nothing Feels Good is a crisply-produced sugar rush that begins with the breakneck “Is Thing On?” takes a midpoint breather with the reflective instrumental “How Nothing Feels”, and ends with the anthemic, bittersweet “Forget Me”.
While emo’s genesis is steeped in stiff upper lips and earnest sincerity, the Promise Ring never took themselves too seriously. The Big Music Video from Nothing Feels Good, “Why Did Ever We Meet?” features the group playing in a living room (as is de rigueur for many indie rock videos of the time). But it also features an impromptu football match, a man taking a swim and receiving praise from two people in animal costumes, rollerblading in short shorts, and bicycle tricks gone wrong before Jackass. In this era, when many bands were bemoaning success and larger crowds or focusing on retaining cred, the Promise Ring’s on-stage banter was typically about their beloved Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Brewers.
In 1997, emo had not yet seen its umpteenth song about trying to maintain a romance while on the road, and “You never wrote in perfect lines / I never wrote you perfect lines” has a clarity that would remain largely unmatched by a thousand tear-stained also-rans Live Journaling and starting bands. While other bands wanted to tear your heart out, the Promise Ring were content to tug at your heartstrings with a well-written line, and that restraint makes the record a classic of the genre.
There is a non-specificity to von Bohlen’s words that helps with glimpses of half-remembered rooms and recollections of encounters from an endless sea of couches and gas stations. Then there’s “B is for Bethlehem”, which seems to blend a lover’s spat into a thought about Jesus fishing for sinners. Even the lines with some degree of inscrutability or indirectness can produce some goosebumps, such as “I married a room” in “Forget Me”, whose catchy big finish practically demands that you restart the record immediately to relive “Is This Thing On?”.
The reappraisal of 1990s and 2000s emo has highlighted the casual misogyny and self-absorption of many of the bands who court on MySpace and inspired AOL Instant Messenger screen names. While many of those albums found their way to the cut-out bins of used record stores, Nothing Feels Good endures because of its wordplay and repetition. By steering clear of those misogynist tropes, the record offers a way in for everyone who’s spent too much time reading lyric sheets, picking over the wreckage of young romance, or crashing on couches on tour.
Writing an album about the potential and complexity of youth isn’t exactly new territory. But rather than digging into vilifying former romantic partners, von Bohlen captures moments, engages in wordplay and repetitive words and phrases (“From BellSouth to a southern belle”; red and blue are important colors, and one song is called “Raspberry Rush”) and references to bands that were less likely to be name-checked as influences at the time, such as Air Supply and Television. Nothing Feels Good feels timeless. It has a “that one summer” energy that recalls their Minnesotan neighbors, the Replacements, whose Let It Be still compels nearly 40 years later.
Nothing Feels Good’s inroads on college music charts made it easier for bands like the Get Up Kids and Jimmy Eat World to find even greater success over the next few years. While the Promise Ring poked fun at themselves with their music video, Jimmy Eat World found massive mainstream success with their underwear party video for “The Middle”. The Get Up Kids found their greatest success on college radio with 1999’s Something to Write Home About and subsequent records before disbanding and reforming in recent years
As for the Promise Ring, they emphasized their pop sensibilities in the 1999 follow-up Very Emergency, which divided fans but increased their footprint on college radio. The Electric Pink EP followed a few months later, and soon after, von Bohlen was diagnosed with a brain tumor, limiting touring.
When the Promise Ring returned in 2001, they had parted ways with Jade Tree and signed with Anti-, an imprint of Epitaph Records. For their first and only release with Anti-, they worked with Stephen Street. He had produced the Smiths and Blur to create the polished and introspective Wood/Water, which reflected on von Bohlen’s recovery and sounded more influenced by the band’s Britpop and Americana favorites than Rites of Spring. Fans didn’t respond favorably to Wood/Water at the time, although it has undergone a reassessment, and as fans have aged, its themes have made it increasingly relevant.
The band broke up soon after, and von Bohlen wasted no time in getting back to basics with Maritime, who delivered several catchy records that further explored the Promise Ring blueprint throughout the 2000s and 2010s but never reached a wide audience.
Over the years since the breakup, the Promise Ring have played several reunion shows, including a New Year’s Eve show in 2015, where they played Nothing Feels Good front to back. However, they have consistently said they have no interest in making new music together. While a new Promise Ring record would surely be hotly anticipated, with an unimpeachable discography and Nothing Feels Good as the high water mark, there is nothing left to prove.