Album Review: Taking Back Sunday – Tidal Wave

The biggest myth about Taking Back Sunday is that Tell All Your Friends (2002) is their best record. The truth is that — now on to their seventh studio album — Taking Back Sunday’s best record is the one that you first discovered them with. In this way, they’re like the Batman of post-emo alt rock: Gen Xers prefer Michael Keaton, Millennials have Christian Bale, and Gen Ys have embraced Batfleck. (This Millennial, however, will always choose Keaton).

After the almost-unlistenable Happiness Is (2014), Taking Back Sunday (TBS) have returned with Tidal Wave — an almost-ambitious record. They wanted to do something different here, and good: it’s about time. When TBS dropped the title-track as the first single, fans were left scratching their heads. Is this the Dropkick Murphys or Rancid? Certainly not Taking Back Sunday!!!

The song’s sweaty swagger is absolutely polarizing. Love it or hate it, “Tidal Wave” is a refreshing change of pace from a band who is often lost in their own sound. There are no wrist-slitting break-up lyrics, no overlapping harmonies, no long bridges with massive build ups. Just a gritty, quick and dirty, two-and-a-half minute gut punch. And it’s great fun. Unfortunately, the song is also somewhat of a bait and switch, as Tidal Wave is not the “new-direction” Taking Back Sunday record that its title-track single promises.

Different in the midst of sameness

Instead, the album is one of noncommittal change that quickly succumbs to the bad habits and songwriting ruts that have haunted much of the band’s previous efforts. It’s a tension that influences too much of the record, coloring it mediocre and underdeveloped.

“Death Wolf” opens the album to some success, but at over four minutes the song is tiresome and quickly loses its way, sounding more like a demo than something finished. “Fences” has a great hook — and some intriguing vocal work by frontman Adam Lazzara — but the lyrics feel cheap: “I want to hear you say, it’ll be okay/I want to hear you say, it’s not too late.” “In The Middle Of It All,” “Holy Water,” and “Homecoming” are all cloaked in this new direction of alt-Americana, but are as forgettable and predictable as any mediocre Taking Back Sunday song before it.

Perhaps the production is a factor.  

Mike Sapone produces Tidal Wave, his fourth collaboration with the band, and this may be the problem. The go-to producer for all things emo should’ve probably stayed far, far away from this one. It’s not that Sapone can only do emo, it’s just that his signature method of invisible influence (meaning he lets the band be the band and does his best to get out of the way) is a bad fit for any group in transition. It’s obvious that what Taking Back Sunday needed from their producer was a fresh perspective and a well-defined new direction.

More of a mid-tempo swell than a tidal wave

All this to say, even the most casual of Taking Back Sunday fans should find plenty to like on Tidal Wave to warrant a purchase. “Call Come Running,” borrows from Mellencamp and Springsteen to some success in a short, killer tune that’s pure fun. At track 10, “We Don’t Go In There” is a deep cut that stands alongside with some of their best work. The lead guitar’s spacy, Circa Survive-esq riff doesn’t match much else on the record, but at this point who cares. Cohesiveness was thrown out at track three, remember?

It would be unfair to call this album a failure. Taking Back Sunday was on the verge of something great here but ended up delivering something just OKAY. And that, really, is okay. Because all of our favorite emo/indie/rock groups are past their prime, getting older and losing steam. It’s how the world works. At the end of the day, (I believe) mediocre albums are better than no albums. At this point, however, I would prefer the band release tighter EPs of its strongest material, instead of mismanaged full-lengths that slowly crawl towards a finish line. As always, the future remains to be seen.

Ultimately, whichever iteration or era of Taking Back Sunday you prefer will determine your expectations for Tidal Wave. Just don’t expect Michael Keaton on this one.

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