The Promise Ring, ‘Nothing Feels Good’ [Revisited]
Released October 1997
Jade Tree Records
Scene vets The Promise Ring are back together after a twelve-year hiatus and touring in support of their upcoming rarities collection. Lucky for us, this tour happens to coincide with the 15th anniversary of their seminal emo album ‘Nothing Feels Good’. The band’s, and especially the album’s, collective influence on the hugely popular 2000s emo/pop-punk scene cannot be overstated. William Beckett, lead singer of now defunct The Academy Is…, once admitted that ‘Red & Blue Jeans’ epitomized his high school experience. Contemporaries and collaborators such as The Dismemberment Plan and Jawbox have sung The Promise Ring’s praises, and it is not a far stretch to say that entities Dashboard Confessional and the whole Fueled By Ramen roster would not exist without them. ‘Nothing Feels Good’ was the defining record of a genre-defining band and helped to change the landscape of an entire music scene; so, here is a short but sweet revisitation of the album and the impact it’s had on the culture it helped to create.
Sonically The Promise Ring are a more major-key Sunny Day Real Estate, a more mellow Get Up Kids, a more uptempo Pinback, a more lyrically sensical Cap’n Jazz; the latter is no surprise, as The Promise Ring and Cap’n Jazz share Davey von Bohlen as a lead singer and lyricist. ‘Nothing Feels Good’ was The Promise Ring’s second album and most critically acclaimed. It won them MTV exposure and glowing writeups in major music mags like Spin. Everything about the record screams (or politely suggests, as better befits the genre) the 90s; even the cover art, resembling a game of Twister slapped on top of an Adventureland-esque carnival ride, stands as the very essence of 1990s small town life. The album is all about growing up and navigating that confusing gray area somewhere between tweenagerdom, adolescence, and early adulthood. Most of the songs’ lyrics aren’t more than ten lines long; in fact ‘Red & Blue Jeans’ comprises only two sentences, but those sentences paint more of a picture than most of today’s Top 40. The band’s lyrical frugality makes the songs less like songs and more like artful vignettes, attaching more meaning to every word sung. In this way each track serves as a polaroid, a snapshot of mid-90s, mid-rust belt teenage life.
Opening track ‘Is This Thing On?’ cites 70s groups Air Supply and Television, ensembles seeming to represent the extreme ends on the spectrum of musical authenticity during the very years that Promise Ring band members were first coming into the world. The midwestern air of americana and pride in one’s country is not lost on the record. Chevrolets, Dick Clark, and more than a dozen different American cities and states are namedropped. Most tellingly, Old Glory’s colors are constantly referenced; whether sardonically or not, well, that’s up to the listener to decide. In fact von Bohlen is more of an intellectual than the record’s inherent humility might lead you to believe. More than one reference to T.S. Eliot’s own hallmark work ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ can be found, portraying the album’s perennial central character as one who cannot express some vital emotion for fear of rejection. In the true spirit of emo, the lyrics are full of self-deprecation and self-reference. Tongue-in-cheek track ‘How Nothing Feels’ takes its own title quite literally, ending up as an instrumental half filled with silence and white noise; as a result it gives the album a relaxed feel and presents a group of guys who don’t take themselves too seriously. In the title track, von Bohlen laments his lack of worldly experience - he’s never been to east Texas or Louisiana, Alabama or Atlanta; he’s stuck. Beyond a limited geographical scope, he feels alone because “I don’t know God / And I don’t know anyone,” and most importantly, “I don’t know if anything at all will be alright.” Melancholy to the extreme, yes, but what 17-year-olds in 1997 - heck, in any year since the dawn of man - don’t share that same uncertainty about the future? All of this unpretentiousness may be fairly centralized to the genre - you wouldn’t find such humble musings in, say, an 80s arena rock song - but by tapping in to the timeless themes of wanting what you can’t have and seeing your teens and twenties disappear before your eyes, The Promise Ring brought emo stylings to a mainstream audience.
‘Nothing Feels Good’ raised a generation in a way. It showed the importance of respecting fans via modest songwriting, of staying true to one’s roots and of being local. Regrettably the group may never know the notoriety of musicians who took from their playbook, but maybe that’s for the best. Part of The Promise Ring’s charm is that they’ve still got a cult following and still a relatively well-kept secret. They have that rare gift of crafting songs which instantly capture a specific time and place. The music imprints itself on one’s memory and acts a bit like a time machine, transporting audiences to a decade when they led simpler and less responsibility-ladened lives. Ironically the album ends with a song called ‘Forget Me’. Not likely. This is an album that will stick around even when the works it’s influenced have faded away, and that’s about the best any artist can ever hope for.
See The Promise Ring live at 9:30 Club on July 20th. Tickets are on sale now.