This article is part of the In Defense of the Genre series. Previously, a look at some of our favourite pop punk albums, from the genre’s Big Bang in 1994 through to just before we launched in 2016.
“To get a little academic for a second, the primary emergency of gay history in its first decades was to uncover and to restore histories of gay movements and of gay heroes. And while the culture of academic research has certainly moved on from that, the public conversation really hasn’t.”– Ben Miller, Bad Gays, Episode 1: “Ernst Röhm”
“be gay, do crimes”– unknown
Say Anything are a strange band in the history of pop punk, not least because, well, are they a band? Max Bemis, lead singer and sole constant member, wrote all their lyrics and most of their music, and his work is, if not autobiographical exactly, then certainly confessional, in a way that reminds me alternately of Sylvia Plath and Eminem. He mentions people in his life by name in his songs a lot, particularly his wife and children in his later career, and usually without bothering to explain who they are for the unfamiliar listener. But other members of Say Anything have co-written music on most of their records, and many of them just credit Say Anything, rather than breaking down who did what. On the sliding scale between a solo project with a band name and a regular band with a primary songwriter, I tend to file Max Bemis and Say Anything in the same folder as Robert Smith and The Cure, Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails or John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats: bands that consist of one person and whoever they’re making music with at the time, too collaborative to be solo projects, but too mercurial to feel like a regular band.
Their sophomore album …Is a Real Boy is widely acclaimed as one of the best pop punk albums of all time and particularly regarded as one of the crown jewels of Bush-era emo, but they’ve pretty much never had a major hit. Not even …Is a Real Boy, which didn’t chart in a year when Blink-182, Green Day, Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, New Found Glory, Taking Back Sunday and even The Offspring (on their seventh album!) made the Billboard Year-End 200. Good Charlotte had two albums on it, and Green Day moved from #86 in 2004 to #2 in 2005 as the worldwide success of American Idiot turned it into one of the best-selling albums ever. My Chemical Romance released their sophomore album, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, in 2004 too, and also missed the year-end chart, but in 2005, they joined Green Day in the top 200 with Fall Out Boy, Simple Plan, Good Charlotte, Bowling for Soup and Jimmy Eat World. Say Anything had no such luck.
…Is a Real Boy had by far the biggest single of Say Anything’s career, “Alive with the Glory of Love”, a staple of alternative rock radio then and of alternative rock playlists now, but not a song that caused much of a ripple in the zeitgeist: it peaked at #28 on the alternative chart. Every subsequent Say Anything album has charted, but every subsequent Say Anything album except In Defense of the Genre, their sprawling double album full of collaborations with other pop punk and emo artists, also sold fewer copies than …Is a Real Boy. Almost twenty years later, …Is a Real Boy is still the album they’re primarily or even exclusively known for. They’ve had two other singles chart – “Baby Girl, I’m a Blur” and “Hate Everyone” – but “Alive with the Glory of Love” is still the closest they’ve come to a hit song. It’s not an uncommon story, really, but it just feels kind of ridiculous that a band this influential and iconic within the genre, who’ve collaborated with Gerard Way, Hayley Williams, Tom DeLonge, Matt Skiba and dozens of other beloved pop punk, emo and indie artists, have never really been that popular. It’s not like they’re critical darlings either: the reception for most of their albums after …Is a Real Boy skews positive, but it’s usually mixed and frequently polarised. I guess they’re kind of a love-it-or-hate-it thing, but even Marmite sells, for God’s sake.
…Is a Real Boy is a masterpiece, possibly the best pop punk album ever, and certainly my favourite, but it’s also been a bit of an albatross around Bemis’s neck. A lot of the band’s later experimentation is a fairly transparent effort to escape the shadow of …Is a Real Boy by refusing to even have a core sound. The second verse of “Judas Decapitation”, from their 2014 album Hebrews, is a screed aimed directly at the archetypal bad Say Anything fan who venerates …Is a Real Boy and hates the work the band has done since Bemis became happier, healthier and met his wife, Sherri DuPree of Eisley: “I hate that dude! / now that he’s married / he’s got a baby on the way / Poor Sherri!” Bemis is open about suffering from bipolar disorder and famously experienced a severe manic episode from the stress of making …Is a Real Boy, so there’s always been a dark undercurrent to the idea he needs to “go back” to making albums like it, as if he can’t make good music unless he’s untreated. You can hear the venom in his voice as he spits out the last lines of that verse: “be nineteen with a joint in hand / never change the band / never ever be a dot dot dot real man”, with the “dot dot dot” in the wrong place, just to piss them off even more. It was a bit of a surprise, then, when Bemis announced a sequel.
Oliver Appropriate, released in 2019, is the band’s presumptive final album, released a few months after a lengthy statement in which Bemis came out as queer, revealed he was retiring from touring for health reasons and announced the end of Say Anything as a recording project (though the third paragraph promises they’ll “return one day to play festivals and scoff at our career”.) Like many concept albums, the concept “lore” is almost entirely secondary to the experience – I’ve never read the liner notes of any concept album ever – but unlike, say, The Black Parade or the concept albums of Cursive (one of Bemis’s more transparent non-pop punk influences), it has a fairly clear narrative, even clearer than pop punk’s definitive concept album, American Idiot. Oliver is a washed-up, single, middle-aged, ex-punk rocker punching the clock at a marketing job and spending all his free time and money on drink and drugs, drifting from bar to bar, club to club, party to party, falling into bed at the end of the night with whatever woman will have him.
Then he sees Karl at a bar, and it’s like a bolt of lightning right into the darkest part of his heart, the secret place he’s been hiding his attraction to men from himself and everyone else. It’s a beautiful album about the misery of alienation, the agony of the closet and the thrill of first love. It’s also a very dark horror story: the album ends with Oliver drowning himself in the San Francisco Bay with Karl’s body.Continue reading “My First Vulnerability is the Last Thing You’ll See”