This article is part of the In Defense of the Genre, a series of critical and personal essays in praise of pop punk. Previously, Tina Kakadelis’s ode to The Summer Set.

This year I entered a truly unprecedented third emo phase. My first was the usual one, in my early teens, sad and lonely and ready to burst out of my skin. My second was in college, an instinctive reaction to a mental health crisis that had me climbing out windows so I wouldn’t have to see my roommates. It’s odd, then, that my third came this year, when – despite living in the apocalypse – things have mostly been fine for me. The overwhelming panic that would have me hiding in bathrooms, the worry worry fluttering in my stomach that made it so hard to speak, has, if not subsided, then become something I can cope with.

But I listened to more pop punk than I have in years. I listened to all of All Time Low, a band with a consistently mixed discography who finally fulfilled their promise with 2020’s Wake Up, Sunshine. I had my triennial Blink-182 hyperfixation, so deep that I happily watched livestreams of Mark Hoppus doing the Sunday crossword. I got into Modern Baseball, Stand Atlantic and Something Corporate. I listened to this one Good Charlotte song five million times.

It wasn’t the lightning strike epiphany moment I had back in 2012: after pop punk got me through my first year at college, I don’t think I could ever turn my back on it the way I did in the back half of secondary school. It felt like “it’s not a phase, mom” had finally reached the fullness of truth. It felt like it was pointless still delineating waves in the face of the tide.

I spent February this year listening to ‘December’ by Neck Deep on repeat and thinking about people I don’t know anymore. Like Motion City Soundtrack were in a faraway city the guts of a decade ago, it was the wintery soundtrack of my spring.

The pop punk I grew up on was pretty much exclusively North American and mostly made by Generation Xers. So I find it hard to describe how it makes me feel that not only are Neck Deep Welsh, they’re my age. I’m actually a couple of months older than lead singer Ben Barlow. They’re a band I’m still only dipping my toes into, but it’s thrilling to feel like there’s a great pop punk band with a relationship to the genre that is closer to mine: raised on the first wave of pop punk in the 1990s and coming of age to the sound of the hardcore-influenced 2000s wave, in a place where “Warped Tour” sounds like a pleasant dream from another planet.  

‘December’ is the centrepiece of their 2015 second album, Life’s Not out to Get You. It’s a really good album, though one I’m still growing into loving. As Zhou Enlai didn’t really say about the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell. It’s unabashed pop punk, with a purity that I can’t decide is to its credit or its detriment. I can practically hear the gears turn, influence-wise. Blink-182, early Fall Out Boy, Sum 41’s All Killer No Filler. ‘Gold Steps’ incorporates hardcore screaming like it’s 2005. ‘Can’t Kick Up The Roots’, the band’s ode to their shitty hometown, could slip into The Wonder Years’ The Upsides or Suburbia, I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing unnoticed. Its final declaration – “I’m not stuck, I’m staying” – makes my heart ache and my throat catch.

Where the rest of Life’s Not out to Get You is all driving punk drums and crunchy guitars, ‘December’ is a slower, acoustic number. It’s about a break-up in the dead of winter. “Stumbled ’round the block a thousand times / You missed every call that I had tried,” Ben sings, “So now I’m giving up.”

Pop punk is full of break-up songs that sound like suicide notes and death threats – “And even if her plane crashes tonight / She’ll find some way to disappoint me / By not burning in the wreckage,” “breaking hearts has never / Looked so cool as when you wrap your car around a tree,” “I wish you would take my radio to bathe with you / Plugged in and ready to fall” – and I love those kind of songs. They’re an exorcism of my most distressing feelings. But ‘December’ is something more bittersweet. The verses are full of aching loneliness, of the keenly felt absence. There’s anger, there, but it hasn’t curdled into bitterness. “You don’t give a fuck / You’d never remember me / While you’re pulling on his jeans” is a line that could sound vicious in another pop punk song, but in ‘December’, it sounds smaller and sadder. It sounds aching. That lyric is followed by wondering if he’ll see Chicago, and ultimately, if “you’ll ever hear this song on your stereo.” It makes “you’d never remember me” full of the same futile longing. It sounds like the thing right at the root of every snarling pop punk death threat. It sounds like the pain of no longer being loved, without the stabilising filter of righteous indignation and revenge. Without even, as in Blink’s ‘I Miss You’, the stabilising filter of asking the girl to come back. There’s regret, but nothing that can be fixed: “There’s so many things that I should’ve said / A year of suffering, a lesson learned.”

“I hope you get your ballroom floor / Your perfect house with rose red doors,” the chorus goes, “I’m the last thing you’d remember / It’s been a long, lonely December.” It’s a declaration of well wishes and of the hard feelings underneath. The first half sounds more like what he hopes to hope, one day, when the pain is less suffocating. When “I’m the last thing you’d remember” is something close to neutral, not a cut to his core.

“Pain is never permanent,” Ben sings, “But tonight it’s killing me.” The insufficiency of positive thinking aphorisms in the face of actual human feeling.

It’s a great song, but the reason I listened to it so much this year is in no small part because of ‘December (again)’. An alternate version of ‘December’ recorded in 2016, ‘December (again)’ swaps acoustic guitars and violin accompaniment for Neck Deep’s usual line-up, and pulls in Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 to sing the bridge and final chorus. That doesn’t sound like much – electric versions of acoustic songs, or acoustic versions of electric songs, are common and usually dull – but those changes combine with subtle lyric changes to make something great.

Pop punk has a noble history of lyric changes helping to transform a song, from change in tense announcing the rediscovery of hope in the last chorus of ‘Adam’s Song’ to The Wonder Years’ ‘Logan Circle: A New Hope’ transforming ‘Logan’s Circle’ from a song about the frustration of your hometown to one about missing it. If ‘December’ is about a break-up that’s just happened, ‘December (again)’ is about remembering that break-up a long time later. (It was released a year later, but it feels much longer.) The wounds aren’t fresh, they’re old scars you hardly think about anymore. But tonight you are.

Like ‘Adam’s Song’ or ‘Logan’s Circle: A New Hope’, what makes it work is how little has changed. “Stumbled ’round the block a thousand times” becomes “walked round the block a thousand times” as memory dulls its difficulty. “I was looking out our window” becomes “I was looking out your window,” because the longer there is no “us” the less easily the “ours” come. The rest of the first verse remains the same. Yet those small moments of distancing, combined with ‘December (again)’’s upbeat, 2000s pop punk sound, give it the distinct quality of memory. A painful memory that feels like the experience perfectly preserved, but of course can never be. When Mark Hoppus’s deep, flat voice comes in – “I miss your face / You’re in my head / There’s so many things that I should’ve said / A year of suffering, a lesson learned” – it feels like a distant echo, the sound of a long ago past and of an aged future all at once.

In ‘December’, the well-wishing chorus feels strained, a desire to feel that way more than the thing itself. It’s loaded, broiling with anger and despair and loneliness and self-loathing underneath. But that distance ‘December (again)’ creates makes it feel totally genuine. ‘December’ is heartbroken – “I came out grieving, barely breathing” – and resentful – “and you came out all right” – in a way that makes well wishes sound sullen. But on ‘December (again)’, he “came out breathing, barely breathing”: the narrative shifts from his being hurt and “you” being fine to his surviving, however hard it was. “And you came out alright” doesn’t sound resentful anymore, it sounds like they survived as best they could, too. It’s a warm salute to an old friend you don’t talk to anymore.

I have so many old friends I don’t talk to anymore. People I once thought would be in my life for decades to come. Sometimes things blew up in a disastrous, uncomfortable fashion, more times we just drifted apart. Sometimes I don’t really know what happened. It’s a hard thing to mourn for: they just never call me, it’s not like they’re dead. I don’t wish those people were back in my life, especially. I just on occasion feel a twinge of wistfulness, not directed enough to call nostalgia. I listen to ‘December (again)’, and I think about all the old scars I don’t think about anymore. I listen to ‘December’ and remember how different things were when these wounds were fresh. I wouldn’t want them back. But I wouldn’t trade in the scars, either.

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