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So High School: Taking Back Sunday’s ‘Tell All Your Friends’ Is the Quintessential Emo Album

Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends shows emo for what it is: a sonic representation of what it really feels like to be an American teenager.

Tell All Your Friends (20th Anniversary Edition)
Taking Back Sunday
Craft Recordings
27 May 2022

The most memorable moment on Taking Back Sunday’s debut album, Tell All Your Friends is also the cheekiest. During the opening verse of “Timberwolves at New Jersey”, lead singer Adam Lazzara opines “Those words at best/ Were worse than teenage poetry”. He then adopts the perspective of a ninth-grade English teacher and slams the offending phrases for containing “too many pronouns”. Within the context of the song, which narrates one person’s attempts to counsel a romantically inept friend, this impromptu writer’s workshop scans as practical advice. The would-be suitor must improve the verses he’s using in his attempts at courtship if he wants to have any shot at impressing girls who favor “literate boys”. 

On an album rife with bombastically sentimental lyrics and first-person pronoun usage, Lazzara’s lit critique comes across like an irreverent wink at the listener. Juvenile poetics are Taking Back Sunday’s stock and trade. The six songs that precede “Timberwolves at New Jersey” provide proof in the form of one emotionally overwrought statement (“Why can’t I feel anything”, “I wanna hate you so bad”) after another. Though the band appears willing to slyly acknowledge their fondness for verbal pyrotechnics with an adolescent bent, this flicker of self-awareness does not mean they intend to temper their teen spirit. Almost as if to prove this point, the song takes a sharp turn at its midpoint away from witty knowingness and back toward bleeding-heart sincerity as Lazzara screams “This is me with the words/ On the tip of my tongue/ And my eye through the scope/ Down the barrel of a gun”. Teenage poetry indeed.

Released in 2002 at the moment when emo was first emerging as a commercially viable strain of pop music, Tell All Your Friends remains the quintessential emo album. It may not be the most popular collection of songs the genre has ever produced, but it’s the most emblematic of its attributes. The purest distillation of its aesthetic, all things considered, and Taking Back Sunday’s best work by a wide margin. In what seems like a tacit acknowledgment of the album’s watershed status, the band is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a reissue featuring several original demos and other “bonus content.” That iteration will become available for purchase almost nine years to the day after a live acoustic rendition hit CD shelves at Hot Topic franchises nationwide and not quite three years since the band put out a remastered version of the original recordings. It’s unconfirmed whether plans to mark the 30th anniversary with a disco version are in the works, but one can only hope. 

Taking Back Sunday’s proclivity to revisit their finest hour is justifiable because Tell All Your Friends is one of emo’s essential texts. Emo has always resisted easy definition, from its inception as an offshoot of hardcore punk to its more recent evolution into an umbrella-shaped vibe under which otherwise divergent musical acts and even Robert Pattison’s turn as Batman fall. The lack of clarity regarding what the genre is has enabled naysayers to stereotype emo as explicitly sad music made by people who wear black clothing and espouse glass-half-empty worldviews. 

Dig a little deeper, though, and it becomes evident that true emo music can be described as the attempt to sonically represent what it feels like to be a teenager—that fugue state when superficial cleverness masquerades as profound wisdom, every single problem takes on life-or-death significance, and an overpowering desire to share yourself with likeminded melodramatists supersedes all else. Remarkably maudlin lyrics about heartache, jealousy, and friendships gone sour are the throughline connecting the genre’s most notable acts. “Spectacular sentimental indulgence” is one of emo’s core attributes as staff writer Jia Tolentino noted in a 2017 The New Yorker article. To listen to an emo song is to be plunked inside the diary of a highly articulate 17-year-old with a jones to rant. Rock has always been a form of music made for and marketed to young people. Emo is the only form of rock that takes the mindset and emotional maturity of the average teen as both its starting point and guiding light. 

Tell All Your Friends is a prime example. The album explodes out of the gate with a swell of fast-chugging guitars and the kind of simple lyrical inversion (“So sick, so sick of being tired/ And oh so tired of being sick”) that an eleventh grader might mistake for Shakespearean brilliance. It pulses with attention-challenged energy, jumping from one fast-paced track to the next like a high schooler rushing to find his seat before the bell rings. On many of the tracks, Lazzara and lead guitarist John Nolan use call-and-response vocals to ratchet up the intensity, and these back and forth exchanges make the listener feel as if they’re eavesdropping on a behind-the-bleachers conversation between squabbling friends.

Many of the lyrics touch on serious adult topics like substance abuse and depression, and references to guns abound. But as with all great emo music, the effect is adolescent. When Lazzara and Nolan sing “And will you tell all your friends/ You’ve got your gun to my head?” on a song about a friendship ruined by infidelity and without a hint of irony, it becomes clear that any allusion to violence is just a metaphor for the histrionic mindset young people enmeshed in a feud tend to adopt. 

Taking Back Sunday wasn’t the first emo band to make manifest the inherent melodrama of youth. What made Tell All Your Friends stand out upon its release were the highly dexterous lyrics that animate the album’s ten songs. Lazzara and Nolan’s concoctions run the gamut from genuinely insightful (“The finest line divides a night well spent from a waste of time”) to delectably quick-witted (“A thousand clever lines unread on clever napkins”) to exaggeratedly intense (“The truth is you could slit my throat/And with my one last gasping breath/I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt.”) Few bands have blended delightful wordplay and over-the-top earnestness with such aplomb. 

Lazzara has cited Nirvana as a formative musical influence, and the lyrics on Tell All Your Friends demonstrate that like Kurt Cobain before them, Lazzara and Nolan understand how the right amount of cheek can magnify the sincerity of a song rather than obscure it. For Nirvana, Cobain’s sardonic humor (“Here we are now, entertain us”, “Teenage angst has paid off well”) combined with his more straightforward expressions of angst amplify the disillusionment he felt toward an increasingly commodified world. For Taking Back Sunday, Lazzara and Nolan’s clever lyrical asides and absurdist tendencies—many of the songs (e.g., “Timberwolves at New Jersey”) have names that are purposefully disconnected from the lyrical content, the band cast Flavor Flav in a music video for no other reason than they sort of knew him from their days on Long Island—are the sugar that makes the band’s expressions of unadulterated sentimentality go down so smoothly. 

Unadulterated sentimentality is the essence of Tell All Your Friends. On “Great Romances of the 20th Century” Lazzara sings “If it’s not keeping you up nights / then what’s the point”—words that describe how the band thinks about every facet of their lives. The album betrays a need on the part of Taking Back Sunday to voice their every feeling about every issue that’s bothering them to anyone willing to listen, and the music is never more alluring than in the moments when Lazzara relies on the piercing sound of his near-falsetto voice to bare unedited emotions. This need to overshare reeks of high school, but it also creates a heightened sense of intimacy by making the listener believe they are a trusted confidant of the person with the mic. The subject matter of the songs on Tell All Your Friends may never rise above concerns like “it’s a real drag to learn that your best friend is cheating with your significant other”, but the band’s willingness to treat the ordinary with such fervor is still compelling. 

Tell All Your Friends’ biggest fault is the dark spot that hangs over the entirety of the early 2000s’ emo scene. Though the album functions as a safe space for the sharing of intensely personal emotions, it can at times take on the atmosphere of a bros-only therapy session. Critic Jessica Hopper eloquently noted how emo excludes female voices and perspectives in a 2003 essay. It doesn’t namecheck Taking Back Sunday, but the lyrics for “The Blue Channel” and “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut from Tthe Team)” evoke Hopper’s criticism that “Emo has become another forum where women were locked out, observing ourselves through the eyes of others.” Interestingly, the music video for “Cute Without The ‘E’ (Cut From The Team)” riffs on David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club in a way that kicks mud in the face of all the incels who still love Tyler Durden. This bold bit of commentary gives credence to critic Owen Meyers’ claim that the band was “a complicating outlier in a largely straight scene which privileged cis male voices even as their lyrics ultimately upheld its supportive pillars.” 

The demo for “Great Romances of the 20th Century”, one of the bonus tracks included on the 20th-anniversary edition, spotlights emo’s male-centric perspective and clarifies how Tell All Your Friends epitomizes the genre. The demo overlays a monologue from Ted Demme’s 1996 film Beautiful Girls onto the opening guitar riff; the monologue is, unsurprisingly, a testament to the supposed way attractive females can “make every little rotten thing about life seem like it’s going to be okay.” Beautiful Girls is easily the most unironic film ever made about dudes in their late 20s who pine for their teenage glory days, analyze life’s challenges with adolescent logic, and view women as two-dimensional savior figures. In this way, Beautiful Girls was a precursor to the emo scene that would go mainstream half a decade after its release.  

In his 2003 book, Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and Emo — an indispensable chronicle of the turn of the 21st-century emo scene and the go-to tome for writers seeking affirmative quotes about the genre — former music journalist Andy Greenwald observes that Taking Back Sunday “like their audience, have an unhealthy fixation on high school.” It’s an astute bit of analysis minus the use of the modifier “unhealthy.” In a world full of absurd, adult-created pain, is there really anything wrong with holding onto the sentiments of youth? You can call Taking Back Sunday’s classic celebration of teendom slightly immature, but unhealthy is a bit harsh. There’s something both courageous and inviting about Tell All Your Friends’ willingness to wear its juvenile convictions on its sleeve without a hint of embarrassment. That willingness is the essence of emo, and no other album offers a more complete example.