Who would have thought that we still had room for a band like the Get Up Kids in our lives?
If you’ve been an emo fan for long enough, you know that it’s a little bit wild to be reading a review of a new Get Up Kids album in 2019. If you look back at the history of emo and pop-punk, especially during the mid-‘00s boom where any band with a Pete Wentz-like singer got booked on a Warped Tour stage or Honda Civic Tour lineup, you’ll find dozens of also-ran artists that just couldn’t figure out how to stay relevant, never to be heard from again. Remember Greeley Estates or Metro Station, whose inevitable descent into obscurity couldn’t even be prevented by a familial connection to Miley Cyrus during her heyday?
The Get Up Kids always seemed separate from that, even if they did the unbelievable 2004 Civic tour. They were gone for the boom years, calling it quits from 2005 to 2008, and upon returning they still took three more years to make There Are Rules, an adequate album that sounded like frontperson Matt Pryor hadn’t figured out how to write music as a capital-A Adult yet. It took eight years, but he’s managed to finally get a firm grip on the idea. Problems, their first on Polyvinyl (which has increasingly become a home for great Midwestern emo bands), follows in the footsteps of last year’s awesome-if-short Kicker EP, which presented us with a taste of what a Get Up Kids album could look like. Anyone who’s had the chance to see the band in the last few years knows that their ongoing existence is no act of phoning it in, and as a unit, they sound more self-assured and tighter than ever.
Pryor, whose inability to relate to the youth of today was showcased on Rules, has finally accepted his mortality, and in doing so, he gives Problems its spark. The band even figured out how to be a little more dynamic; opener “Satellite” starts with a 20-second fakeout. “By myself I don’t think anybody else/ Even cares,” Pryor sings distantly atop a simple acoustic guitar strum. As he begins to liken isolation to the lonely existence of a satellite hanging in space, the rest of the band quietly joins him just in time to snap into place for the chorus, with all the energy they had on Kicker and then some. They hold that energy for the whole record, even on comparatively downtempo songs like the truly gorgeous “Salina” or the slow-burning “Your Ghost Is Gone.” Problems isn’t their first attempt at letting their sound evolve, but this time it feels effortless.
Pryor’s acceptance of adulthood translates into coming to terms with the fact that he’s the common denominator of all of his issues: “Could it be?/ Maybe the problem is me?” Pryor asks himself on the piano-heavy “The Problem Is Me.” He grapples with losing his edge with the melancholy “Common Ground,” where he struggles to find comfort in his own march towards irrelevance, while on “Symphony of Silence,” he distills it more by declaring “I used to be good once/ But now I get nervous.” He’s not flawless in writing about this, as he and the whole band stumble on the sugary “Now or Never,” because you know damn well he can do better than “Tonight, we only have now or never” repeated ad nauseum. But that “Now or Never” is the only weak song on the album is downright impressive.
In spite of this growth, “mature” is never going to be a word that describes Get Up Kids. This is still the band that wrote “Red Letter Day,” and 20-plus years in, they’re still going to be whiny dudes—that they named this album Problems is a characteristically self-aware and humorous move for the band. On “Lou Barlow,” Pryor views the unmaking of his relationship through the lens of spotting the titular Sebadoh frontman: “I saw Lou Barlow on the street/ I don’t think he noticed me/ I started humming all his songs/ You refused to sing along!” he whines while Rob and Ryan Pope lay down a punky bassline and sloppy drumbeat, respectively. Elsewhere he’s overdramatic, like on his refrain of “No, it never gets easier, waking up alone/ Now my sentimental heart is growing cold” on “Waking Up Alone,” which also gets an effervescent bridge where he almost joyfully sings “Oh, c’est la vie, mon ami, we never have to apologize for the lies that we use to survive,” a strangely forgiving line for the band. His sorrowful streak pays off with closer “Your Ghost Is Gone”—a career high-point for the band, the triumphant crescendos that close it coming closer to American Football than Saves the Day—as he copes with his inability to accept loss with grace: “And I’m sure that you’re safe/ But you know that I can’t say goodbye.”
Who would have thought that we still had room for a band like the Get Up Kids in our lives? Those bands didn’t go away because we stopped listening, but they lost sight of how to age with their fans, and there was a time when The Get Up Kids threatened to collapse into that void. Problems isn’t a perfect blueprint for how the emo bands of our youth can still speak to us as adults. Instead, it gives us a best-case scenario for the band in 2019: still funny, heartfelt and fucked up inside, but growing as musicians and human beings.