fourth wave of emo has arguably been the genre’s most impressive. Although it hasn’t reached the anomalous commercial heights of its predecessor, the fourth wave’s artistic currents have stormed the underground: the lyrical strengths of Julien Baker and Sorority Noise are matched by the energy of Remo Drive and Modern Baseball, and the unbridled emotion of La Dispute is contested by the thoroughness of TWIABP. Somewhere In this tempest, The Front Bottoms have somehow managed to carve an alcove on the genre’s outskirts, occupying a distinct niche that blurred the line between the DiY of AJJ and the poetry of American Football.
To talk about Going Grey with any seriousness requires context. Their 2011 self-titled veered away from their contemporaries’ existentialism, and placed a refreshing individuality into the folk punk spotlight, and 2013’s Talon Of The Hawk polished an already successful formula. 2015’s Back On Top, released on indie mega-label Fueled By Ramen, almost completely removed both the folk and the punk from the equation, and left the band with a concise–if generic–compromise between their intricate storytelling and radio-friendly, alt-rock composition. Since their conception, The Front Bottoms have defied both expectations and genre, releasing consistent projects with enough artistic integrity to appeal to punk rockers, and enough pop sensibility to see radio play.
For a band signed to Fueled By Ramen, Going Grey is the next logical sonic step. Gone are the voice cracks and acoustic guitars; in their place, compression and synthesizers. The percussion slices through the mix, the melodies are catchy, and the vocals harmonize. In a vacuum, Going Grey is a competently crafted piece of pop rock with a distinct lyrical flair. This competency, however, is perhaps the album’s biggest problem.
The Jersey ensemble has never succeeded because of their talent. No, Sella and crew have always thrived through a particularly punkish charm that runs parallel to both emo and folk–the acoustic guitars and raw vocals that invoke persona rather than pleasure. At the forefront of The Front Bottoms ethos, however, is Sella’s unique, layered, and distinctly thorough storytelling: Self Titled’s “Hooped Earrings” creates a self-contained world of desperation, while Talon Of The Hawk’s all-encompassing “Twin Size Mattress” manages to create a universal anthem for deadbeats and dreamers alike. No matter the sonic quality, as long as The Front Bottoms continues to create convincing stories, their essence and quality will be preserved.
The closest Going Grey comes to the group’s previous intricacies are vague anecdotes that promote ambiguous mood rather than tell convincing stories. The specificity of “You’ve got a rash on your neck just below the line where at your shirt stops covering and leaves your skin bare” has been left in favor of the bite-size generality in “I miss the hours in the morning and you in the morning hours… I miss the way things used to be.” Thematically, the album comes up short as well: “Bae” uniquely addresses the essential and inglorious aspects of relationships and “You Used To Say (Holy F***)” conveys anxiety and angst effectively enough, but both lack the depth to become essential entries into the Front Bottoms’ catalogue. “Vacation Town” and “Grand Finale” compete lyrically with their older works, but the overproduction strips any merit of charm the tracks may have once had.
In March 2016, a 2-minute video surfaced of a lone Brian Sella performing a new song titled, “Tommy.” It was an intimate recording, played presumably to an audience of, at most, 100 people, and featured Sella and his trusty acoustic. It was a touching, humbling performance from the band that had gone electric just a year prior, and radiated the classic Sella charm. The song was eventually officially released with Going Grey, re-recorded and re-titled as “Don’t Fill Up On Chips.” The official release upped the tempo, changed some melodies, added a chorus effect, upbeat percussion, harmonies and a synth. Although the lyrics remained unchanged, the “Don’t Fill Up On Chips” carries negligible impact, even when isolated from “Tommy.” “Don’t Fill Up On Chips” best exemplifies Going Grey’s biggest problem: Brian Sella still manages to tell stories, but those stories are vague at best and boring at worst–and when Sella’s storytelling does manage to shine, it reminds listeners more of Coldplay than Brand New.