When did pop punk get so introspective? Whatever happened to those bleach-haired pranksters who held the scene in a stranglehold and noogied it into submission throughout the ‘90s? For starters, their fanbases grew up and realized that casual racism and misogyny aren’t really things worth celebrating in song.
Kids who came of age during the long winter of the Bush years never had the luxury of living in the Clintonian fantasy world of their forebears. Their insecurities grew at the same alarming pace as their student debt, but then again, so did their armor. In this charged environment, pop punk became about something more than prolonging one’s adolescence; it became about building a community, establishing rituals, and leaning on both for answers. Even as pop culture was pushing punk back into the basement after its long decade in the sun, the genre’s biggest proponents were changing their tune. “What’s my age again?” became “How can I become a better person?”
It’s always good for a scene dominated by straight white men to ask itself these kinds of questions, and no band better represents the evolving nature of pop punk than Pennsylvania’s Spraynard. The trio initially made a name for themselves as the Blink-182 of the basement circuit, shedding the dick jokes but maintaining the shout-along choruses and playful sense of humor. One couldn’t help but smile along at a Spraynard show, where the band’s endearing positivity had a way of infecting everyone present.
Spraynard were pranksters, sure enough, and Funtitled seemed like an appropriate name for their sophomore album. But their songs — even the ones with Simpsons-referencing titles like “Can I Borrow a Feeling?” — betrayed plenty of cracks beneath that fun-loving facade. These were guys struggling with the myriad insecurities that come with adulthood, including everything from gut-punching nostalgia to expanding guts. They were also struggling to get along, which led them to call it quits after 2012’s Exton Square EP.
The saying goes that some fires burn too bright to last, but that’s a bit shortsighted. After all, you can always just relight the fire. Thankfully, in 2014, Spraynard decided to regroup, transforming their “breakup” into a much softer “hiatus.” To say that they aren’t the same band anymore is an understatement, even if their sound remains heavily reliant on anthemic pop hooks. But to say that they’ve matured is also problematic, as we typically associate maturity with wisdom and a sense of groundedness.
Mable, the band’s latest LP, is their most serious by far. Gone are the cheeky song titles, replaced by titles like “Applebee’s Bar”, which might be the most depressingly evocative two-word phrase to ever grace the English language. “Used to think I was a savior, a part of a cause,” sings guitarist Pat Graham. “Now see I am nothing, no, nothing at all.” This opening track sets the tone for what follows, in that it’s both impossibly catchy and racked with regret and self-doubt. The song’s final couplet makes for a neat thesis statement: “Things have changed/ It’s not what I wanted.”
Throughout Mable, Graham and his compatriots sound older and more world-weary, even as they keep up the frenetic pace of their band’s earlier incarnation. Songs like “Buried”, with its refrain of “I just want to know what it’s like to be alright,” are best taken with a shot of cheap whiskey, as each of Graham’s lines feels like a tiny papercut to the heart. Their growth in this respect has distanced them from younger acts like Modern Baseball and put them in the same realm as Iron Chic, Banner Pilot, and the Menzingers, all of whom specialize in anthems for the grizzled and despaired.
With that said, Spraynard deserves some extra credit for going out of their way to appeal to a more diverse crowd. “Pond” is a great example of a song that’s personal as well as universal; it also breaks through the album’s heavy air during a chorus that feels like vintage Spraynard: “What’s the use in trying to survive/ If we don’t do what makes us feel alive?” Elsewhere, “Listen to Me” is an uptempo feminist song that calls attention to the struggle of women to simply be heard. The message in such a song would seem self-evident, but even the punk scene is sadly not immune to misogyny.
While the plodding, bass-heavy verses of “Bench” would seem to align more with Spraynard’s new vision of themselves, Mable is best when it breaks hearts at higher speeds. The album saves its brightest spot, “Home”, for last. This closing track feels like a culmination of everything the group has done up to this point, both on Mable and in the years preceding their initial breakup. It’s a rousing anthem for a better tomorrow, and an earnest attempt to come to terms with the lessons of adulthood. “When you learn how to be alone, you learn who you are,” sings Graham. Maybe he’s referencing the band’s time off, or maybe he’s speaking to the crippling loneliness we all have to deal with at some point or another. In any case, he closes with a promise that’s been coded in pop punk for years: You’ll learn, you’ll survive, you’ll see another day. In other words, “it’s enough to get you home.”
Essential Tracks: “Applebee’s Bar”, “Pond”, and “Home”