Nearly twenty-five years into their storied career, Taking Back Sunday’s eighth album, “152,” sees the New Jersey rock n’ roll veterans returning with a project that is a marked departure from anything they’ve done before.
5. Amphetamine Smiles
After years of creating independently produced work with record labels like Hopeless Records, “152” marks the first time in over a decade that Taking Back Sunday has worked with a major pop producer in Tushar Apte.
Apte’s track record runs the gamut from Demi Lovato to Nicki Minaj to BTS and beyond, making him a unique choice for the band. But any worries that this collaboration would sand off any of the edges of Taking Back Sunday’s more guttural emotional instincts are assuaged immediately by the anthemic album-opener, “Amphetamine Smiles.”
Opening with the intimate and authentically sparse pairing of Nolan’s acoustic strumming and Lazzara’s hallmark vocals, “Amphetamine Smiles” serves as an early showcase for Lazzara and Nolan’s lyrics and harmonies (“You’ve gotta save yourself before you try and save somebody else” feels like an especially pointed indicator of where this album is heading, sonically and thematically) before blossoming into a full-blown, soaring strings, shredding guitars, bombastic drums banger in the best of ways.
If “Amphetamine Smiles” is a gradually escalating, warm welcoming back of the audience into Taking Back Sunday’s world with some recognizable features to draw one in, then “S’old” is a swift uppercut to the jaw.
“S’old” is raucous and propulsive, funneling the band’s fast-paced, energetic stylings through a more modernized filter of influences to some truly unique results. Whereas Lazzara’s raspy and tactile vocals were left to soar uninhibited throughout “Amphetamine Smiles,” “S’old” sees Apte layering on some auto-tune and vocal filters. This leads to a sense of friction in the vocal delivery as Lazzara’s voice audibly rages against the sterilized confines of the production.
It is fascinating and only adds to the robust kinetics of the track, complemented by Nolan’s fiery vocals and harmonies, and thrust forward at a breakneck pace by Cooper’s quick-draw bass and O’Connell’s monumental drums. In the dichotomy between these first two tracks alone, listeners will find the depth and breadth of the creative chasm the band looks to explore on this album; a place where gnarly processed synths and articulately hand-strummed acoustic work can and does live side-by-side with one another.
3. Juice 2 Me
The ninth track on “152,” “Juice 2 Me,” is a fantastic encapsulation of how, even as the band and Apte push themselves into a new sonic territory, their authenticity and honesty to themselves make it all still sound unshakable like Taking Back Sunday.
This song is something of a thematic culmination for the album, a musical payoff to the lyrical setup by Lazzara from an earlier track, “Keep Going”: “the problem isn’t that I changed, the problem is that you stayed the same.”
It’s been over twenty years since Taking Back Sunday’s seminal debut album, Tell All Your Friends, and each member of this lineup has only grown into vastly more talented musicians, artists, and people in the time since then. Gone are the early razor-blade-sharp high-pitched vocals of Lazzara, replaced by a much more lived-in, rural, and affecting bravado. Cooper’s bass playing has only gotten more nuanced, O’Connell’s percussive fury has grown even more impressive, and John Nolan has become a guitar virtuoso. This track, as well as 152 as a cohesive whole, is a celebration of the artists they have become, not just the ones they once were, and that’s a great thing.
While tracks like “S’old” and “Juice 2 Me” serve as beautiful showcases for the modern flair and artistic tendencies of the album, “Lightbringer” is a phenomenal showcase for just how deeply indebted the work is to more classical influences.
Channeling artists like Bob Seger, Tom Petty, or even Bruce Springsteen, “Lightbringer” sees Lazzara and Nolan delivering folksy melodic refrains that are complemented not by equally folksy guitars or strings, but instead by brooding, dark synths. This, paired with the album’s increased focus on melodic lines in general, makes for a sonic hook that drives itself straight into your skull. It is wonderful.
1. The Stranger
Taking Back Sunday has long had a penchant for closing their albums on a high note. Whether we’re talking “…Slowdance on the Inside,” “Everything Must Go,” or especially the haunting “Nothing at All,” the band loves to close an album out in a way that is both satisfying and leaves one reflecting on the album as a whole. Fortunately, “152″ is no exception to this rule, as the closing track, “The Stranger,” brings the entire album full circle with immense emotional catharsis.
In having the album as a whole sound so much more nuanced, reserved, and mature in the intensity of its instrumentation, it makes “The Stranger” feel that much more impactful, as Lazzara’s register ascends to a place of raw, palpable energy.
With a wingspan of influences that stretches further back and more presciently present than ever before in the band’s history, 152 is an album that sounds exactly like the kind of music that the members of Taking Back Sunday want to be making right now, and it’s wonderful.
After years spent as foundation-laying pioneers of the emo and alternative genres, Taking Back Sunday has spent the last decade ruthlessly pushing against the perceived boundaries of their own sound and image. Their sixth album, 2014’s Happiness Is, saw them expanding into more progressive, conceptual, and orchestral territory to incendiary results. Their seventh album, 2016’s Tidal Wave, blended that innovative spirit with a more Americana-infused sense of vintage rock n’ roll stylings. In 2021, vocalists Adam Lazzara and John Nolan formed the side-project Fuckin Whatever, whose psychedelic agro-pop soundscapes sounded both like nothing they had ever done before and yet still quintessentially recognizable as them.
152 enters the world as a remarkable culmination of all of this. Here, undoubtedly bolstered by the success of their prior creative ventures, Taking Back Sunday returns with an album much less worried about connecting to their decades-in-the-making established sound and much more content to simply exist as the kind of music that comes pouring out of the four core members (Adam Lazzara, John Nolan, Shaun Cooper, and Mark O’Connell) right now, in 2023.
Overall, 152 is a fascinating and incredibly well-crafted album from Taking Back Sunday. In not overtly worrying about ensuring they are adhering to what audiences might think of as a ‘Taking Back Sunday sound,’ they’ve delivered a unique and prescient distillation of precisely who they are as artists and men right now. There are undoubtedly moments where the tug-and-pull between the band’s emotive and independent stylings and Apte’s more pop-oriented pedigree feels like it sways a bit too harshly in one direction or the other, but for the remarkable majority of the album, they walk the tonal tightrope with panache to spare.
In short, 152 absolutely rules.