The Front Bottoms is honestly the only band that dug themselves a trench in my brain on an initial listen. I first heard Brian Sella’s crooked and charming vocals not long after their self-titled record was released. That was six years ago — I was a college freshman just starting to outgrow the home I’d found in pop-punk and still quietly trolling around the blink-182 tag on Tumblr when I came across the video for “Maps”. The post author said that the affectation of Brian’s voice immediately reminded them of the one we’ve all grown to know/love/associate with Tom Delonge and that was enough to ensure that I would, at the very least, listen long enough to hear it. I could never have expected to fall for this band as fast or as hard as I did, but I swear to god* that I could feel the immediate rush of dopamine coursing through my body.
If it could, the dull light of my laptop screen would probably have harbored a sense of envy towards this music video, because my eyes dilated as if to take in every possible shred of detail. Thus began the free-fall that saw me immediately open a new tab and head to YouTube only to begin my own search for all things The Front Bottoms. I was greeted with two more music videos — one for “Flashlight” and the other for “Swimming Pool”. The order in which I have them listed is the order in which they were first seen; a detail that means nothing outside of the context of this piece. These three songs are the perfect summation of the body of work they come from; moments of seemingly blissful pop share space with songs that reek of deep-seeded emotional turmoil and create an environment that feels entirely its own. I went into listening to the rest of the self-titled album like a human heart-eyes emoji and walked out a human heart-eyes emoji covered in drool.
The selling point for this band has always been the marriage of Brian’s vocals and lyrics. His songwriting style seems nonsensical, almost always feeling like a manic journey through everything he wants to say but isn’t sure he can. That crooked charm that I’ve attributed to his vocals comes from the feelings of discomfort that comes from this level of catharsis. You can hear it in “The Beers” when the chorus careens around Brian’s broken vocals, which begin to crack as he sings “and I will remember that summer as the summer I was taking steroids, ‘cause you like a man with muscles, and I like you” in a way that feels like the most genuine melodrama. It communicates just how devastating young love can feel in a way that every other modern pop song wishes it could; the heartbreak and feelings of romance are all bundled into this one moment that sees Sella’s voice cave to the emotional weight of the story he’s trying to tell.
I spent countless nights with that record. It was the soundtrack to writing papers, my graveyard shift at the convenience store around the corner from my house, and deciding that writing about music was something that I wanted to pursue. I listened to it every day until Talon Of The Hawk was announced. I was immediately attracted to “Twin Size Mattress”, which to this day is probably one of the best songs The Front Bottoms has ever written, and it was all aboard the hype train for a new record. I was eager and more than willing for this cycle to continue.
When I got my hands on Talon Of The Hawk, my feelings were mixed. I wasn’t sure of how I felt about the album as a whole. There were a handful of songs that I genuinely loved and continued to come back to, but others, like “I Swear To God The Devil Made Me Do It” and “Peach” initially left a foul taste in my mouth. (Plot twist: Talon Of The Hawk is my favorite The Front Bottoms album.) I just don’t think that I was quite ready to hear the band experiment with their sound in the way that they were on this record. They were ready to mature and I was still clinging to the feelings of that first record in a way that made me resent their attempts at growing as artists.
It wasn’t until the band announced their third record that I gave this one another shot, and it wasn’t until the band announced their fourth record that I fell in love with it. Listening to more than just the singles for the first time ignited a spark in me that I couldn’t shake. The more that I listened to Talon Of The Hawk, songs that once pushed me away were the guiding light that brought me back around on this record. Repeated listens informed the idea that the topics were just as dark, if not darker, on this record than on the self-titled. This time around, they were just dressed up with bigger hooks, more successful singles, and a sound that just felt more alive.
Until recently, it somehow escaped me that “Lone Star” is a song about abortion in the vein of Hemingway’s “The Hills Like White Elephants.” The lyrics are vague and the chorus is so huge that it makes you want to dance like one of the kids from the Peanuts, so it’s not until you’re looking at those lyrics juxtaposed with the first verse that everything starts to click. “[Verse 1]Goodbye future, once so bright, meet my pregnant girlfriend/Watch my bank account run dry, 437 dollars spent/To put things back to the way they used to be/Still, I woulda spent so much more/But 437 dollars somehow shakes all responsibility/But it’s not easy/[Chorus] She looks me dead in the eyes and says “Hey Brian/If you still believe in the Lord above/Get on your hands and knees and pray for us/Get on your hands and knees and pray for us.” Try and tell me that isn’t devastating. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
That’s the way this entire record works. The Front Bottoms took the darkest parts of life and blending them into the beautiful parts. You’re not just focusing on the parts of life that make you hurt, you’re also looking at the parts of life that make you laugh and cry. It’s heralded by fans as the best record that The Front Bottoms have ever and will ever release, and as declarative and short-sighted as that may sound, it’s hard to argue with.
Success comes with “fans” that will use every ounce of breath in their possession to tell you that the old stuff was better. People will gladly go blue trying to tell you that everything after Talon lacks the heart in the throat vibe that made them fall in love with The Front Bottoms. That was the narrative surrounding their first album on a major label. Back On Top was released two years ago on Fueled by Ramen, and traded in a lot of the raw and frantic energy of their previous material for a bigger and more polished sound. Brian has gone on record and said that with Back On Top, they were willing to experiment and wanted the full experience of working in a big studio with producer Joe Chiccarelli (the White Stripes, the Killers) and letting the album take on a life of its own.
My relationship with Back On Top is interesting. It’s not my favorite The Front Bottoms record, but I’ve listened to it at least 200 times in the two years since it’s release. It’s not the self-titled album that made me fall in love with them, but it rivals that record in terms of taken up headspace and was responsible for my renewed love for the band. Back On Top is more than just a playful reversal of the band’s name, it’s the mission statement for the album. Tied to the recurring motif of “closing your eyes to see the light,” The Front Bottoms effortlessly shred through their most straightforward rock album to date. To some, this change was alienating, but there’s something about the odd-number records from this band that immediately resonates with me.
I know that record like the back of my hand. It’s been the soundtrack to countless walks through my neighborhood, endless nights spent staring at the ceiling, and a handful of long drives. There’s a duality to every The Front Bottoms record that remains underappreciated. The front half of each release is seemingly lighter in tone — they’re more playful and willing to be goofy while touching on subjects like love and friendship. The further you get into the record, the more personal things start to feel. The tone gets darker, lyrics get more sarcastic and bitter.
This is especially present on Back On Top — the first half of the record has songs like “Summer Shandy” and “Laugh Til I Cry”. “Summer Shandy” uses its funky backbone to carry you into the too fun to sing chorus of “I got those bad boy blues, baby/I got them bad boy blues/I feel hypnotized/by the way you move/and those big brown eyes” while “Laugh Til I Cry” uses it’s static vocal delivery a la R.E.M. to detail the idea of partying until you can’t physically do it anymore. The back half of this record is, to quote Max Bemis of Say Anything, “slathered in the sauce sarcastic.”
Songs like “The Plan (Fuck Jobs)” and “Plastic Flowers” feel like the most authentic performances that we’re every going to get from The Front Bottoms. The former starts with a simple commentary on the way we tend to talk about music, “I fucking hate the comments/why do you feel you have to talk?/Nobody asked for your opinion/you’re sick, sad way of jerking off.” The latter is dripping with a weird kind of optimistic hopelessness, if that makes any sense? The song starts with the lyrics “They say the good thing about plastic flowers is you can spray them with any type of perfume” and has the hook “I believe that someone’s got a plan for me/they got a plan for me/even if I don’t know it yet/no, not quite yet” which is all fine and good until you get to the soul-bearing and harrowing spoken word third verse, which reads “Okay, everybody, shut the fuck up a minute/I have something to say/Listen, just because something burns bright/Doesn’t mean it’s gonna burn forever/So, all these people around you saying/’You got so much further to go’/’It’s gonna get worse before it gets better’/I don’t know, I don’t know if that’s true.”
It’s one hell of a way to end the record. The song is the perfect marriage of lyrical bleakness shrouded by a sickeningly optimistic chorus — it’s quintessential The Front Bottoms. Plastic Flowers is my favorite The Front Bottoms song aside from the powerhouse of Wolfman. Wolfman came from a Run For Cover released Record Store Day split with the essential third member of the band, rapper GDP. That song is the perfect marriage of the sounds from Talon and Back on Top in that it has all of the unpolished and raw delivery of the former paired with the shredding rock and roll of the latter. Lyrically, the song will drive a stake through your heart on the shocking and hauntingly poetic second verse, “It’s so hard to stay when all you wanna do is ride/I totally get you/Yeah, I was a birdcage/and you were meant to fly.” Technically this was released prior to Back on Top, but I heard it after the fact which is why it’s placed at this point.
That brings us to today. We’re a week shy of the release of The Front Bottoms fourth studio album, and second for the powerhouse that is Fueled by Ramen, which is called Going Grey. I recently got to speak with Brian Sella about the record, and while a lot of it was spent feeling sick to my stomach and telling him just how much The Front Bottoms meant to me, we got to talk about what went into creating Going Grey. The lead single, “Raining”, is a little misleading because of how much it sounds like it could have come from Talon, but they more than make up for that with “Vacation Town”. Lyrics such as “I can only express my love when I’m fucked up or far far away/physically another continent/emotionally another headspace/mentally, I’m not here.” The soundscape marries that of their previous works with the high-energy pop sounds present on the rest of Going Grey.
The album is inarguably a pop record; trading the shredding guitar solos for something a little more dancey. When asked if that was an intentional transition, Sella comments that each The Front Bottoms record takes on a life of its own in the studio and the people that were involved and that “It came together how it came together. Even if it had come out sounding like a country album, I would probably be giving the same answer, honestly.” We talked about the song Don’t Fill Up On Chips (formerly Tommy) and it’s transformation from a heartbreaking acoustic track into one of the most fun and carefree sounding songs on the record. He says that it was a song he’d had for a while before bringing into the recording sessions for Going Grey and they had so much time to deconstruct it and make it feel brand new, that the result is this bombastic and cheeky track with a chorus that’s bound to be stuck in your head for literally weeks on end. We also spoke on another song that Brian says was born of the same environment as “Don’t Fill Up On Chips” titled “Everyone But You”. This song a grade-a certified bop that is ready to take over the world.
The album starts and stops at the water. The sounds of the tide usher us into “You Used To Say (Holy Fuck)”, which Brian says was written immediately after a kayaking excursion gone wrong with his girlfriend. Those same sounds take us out on “Ocean”. That track is another delightfully playful closing song in that it does this weird thing where the first chorus speeds things up and then each subsequent chorus slows things down until we’re back in the familiar sounds of crashing waves. I haven’t had the record long enough for it to weasel it’s way into my daily routine, but weeks of listening has all but guaranteed that inevitable future.
The Front Bottoms are as much a part of my DNA as the fact that I’m only five foot six. They carved their trench in my brain with their debut, and with each subsequent release have secured their stronghold. Each of their records has soundtracked my life and Going Grey is sure to be no exception. It’s sure to be just as, if not more, polarizing than Back On Top just because of how far a departure it is from the music that you fell in love with, but if you’re willing to grow with the band instead of trying to hold them to their teen angst, you’re bound to love Going Grey.
Going Grey is out October 13th. Pre-orders are available here.
* It took approximately five years off my life to not finish this with “the devil made me do it.”