Pop punk often suffers from oversaturation. For every band like The Wonder Years that pushes the boundaries, there are ten more that lack imagination and are little more than carbon copies of their predecessors. The genre’s prolonged prosperity relies on the bands that are willing to go against the grain and experiment with the style while remaining true to its core values. Alternately, the trendier bands that stick like glue to one sound to pander to the lowest common denominator often get discarded after the audience becomes bored with their shtick, thus affecting the overall longevity of the scene. For pop punk to excel, more bands need to be willing to test themselves and the audience to create music that can allow the genre to grow.
Enter Michigan-based Fireworks; the band is pop punk by association but has never used the genre as a crutch. If you start from the beginning of their discography, you might find little to distinguish them from other pop punk bands; they wrote fast and aggressive distortion-driven songs that featured catchy, nasally vocals that waxed poetic about friendship, hometown, growing pains. However, with the release of their critically acclaimed sophomore album Gospel, the band began to distance themselves from the pop punk crop; they added heavier use of the keyboard and cleaner guitars while exploring pop-inspired melodies. The music was mostly uplifting and hopeful, but remained unbelievably infectious and relatable.
If Gospel represented a happier side of pop punk, then Oh, Common Life, the band’s third full-length album, presents a much gloomier outlook, rife with melancholy, nostalgia, and introspection. The album comes on the heels of a brief hiatus that gave the band time to breathe and examine their lives. The lyrics incorporate dark and haunting imagery while the music further delves into the deep end of the pop-tinged spectrum. The album holds nothing back, drawing from the most honest crevices of common, everyday life. Opener “Glowing Crosses” sets the listener up for the roller coaster ride that’s before them, charging ahead with a churning bass line and a pounding guitar riff that leads to a fist-pumping chorus featuring Dave Mackinder’s soaring vocals as he belts, “you know I’m barely hanging on/I’m burning on your front lawn/like a burning cross, cross cross”. The use of the church-like organ in the bridge sets this song apart from your standard rough-around-the-edges pop punk song. Keyboardist Adam Mercer shines in his ever-expanding role, sprinkling twinkly harmonic piano riffs at the perfect times to add a bright layer to even the darkest songs.
After stalling on the goofy guitar riff on “Bed Sores” and the unremarkable “The Back Window’s Down”, the album’s only real missteps, the music picks up steam and never lets up as the band offers some of their finest work to date. Tymm Rengers’ explosive drumming opens the doors on “Flies on Tape”, a toe-tapping, hand-clapping anthem that showcases Dave’s continued vocal progression; his harmonies invoke images of Patrick Stump as he reaches some of the highest notes he’s ever hit. Guitarist Chris Mojan and Brett Jones compose some of the band’s most memorable guitar riffs to date, from the slick and dancey “Woods” to the slow and methodical “One More Dizzy Creature With Love”. “The Sound of Young America” is a song befitting its name, presenting a catchy, adrenaline-charged riff leading to a spirited and youthful chorus that is a lot of fun to listen to. “Run Brother Run” is one of the finest songs in the band’s catalog, a slow and somber track that builds off the polished guitar and piano and draws the listener in with its intimate look into Dave’s inner turmoil.
The band consistently orchestrates uplifting music even when tackling the saddest moments. Death seeps through every pore of the album, specifically pertaining to Dave losing his father while he toured with The Wonder Years in 2011. “Play God Only Knows At My Funeral” sees Dave coping with his ghosts as he laments, “I’m half the man/my father says I should be/and I can feel/I can feel him over me.” The crisp riff and ear-pleasing melodies put a huge smile on your face even as Dave sings, “Maybe I need to go out tonight/and get stabbed to death to feel alive/yeah I used to try”. “The Only Thing That Haunts This House Is Me” opens with another blaring guitar riff that sways gracefully into a hook-heavy chorus that addresses the affect the death had on his life. Closer “The Hotbed Of Life” is a bouncy sing-a-long that delves deeper into Dave’s ghosts. He croons, “I used to hang grocery bags up and down, up and down my arms/to impress my mom, now I use them to carry boxes/out of my dead dad’s house/so I started writing songs about this girl/but now that girl is somebody’s wife” The images of ghosts, graves, and death are weaved throughout but are handled with great care and attention.
Oh, Common Life comes at a time when pop punk has been going through a stagnant period. The band shatters all conventions associated with the genre, which is all the more impressive since they have now done this twice. The music is brave and relatable, logically building off the foundation laid down on Gospel. The album refuses to sugarcoat anything, but then again neither does life; death and misery happen and the only way to deal with it is to address it head-on. Dave’s pure honesty and candidness provide the fuel that drives the brilliantly catchy music and soaring melodies the band continues to provide. In the end, Oh, Common Life is a welcome addition to a genre that sorely needs innovation.