Is it enough just to be different? Should there be some tangible reward for artists pushing past their comfort zones, even if those results aren’t exactly perfect?
Plenty of artists have done the exact opposite and were moderately praised for their efforts—Wilco’s Wilco (The Album) comes to mind. Established entities are granted reprieve from their generic fallback into repetition and creative staleness. But what about breaking away from that?
Does an artist deserve praise, or at least notoriety for breaking from their predetermined scene?
The answer to this question basically gives away your opinion of Straylight Run’s self-titled debut. Straylight was the product of two-fifth’s of Taking Back Sunday (singer/guitarist John Nolan, bassist Sean Cooper), one side-player in the Long Island Hardcore scene (Michelle Nolan, John’s sister) and one outsider (Will Noon, drummer of Dessa). When Nolan and Cooper broke from TBS in spectacular LiveJournal fashion, Nolan promised to be ready with new material soon.
Just so, the self-titled debut arrived to vicious hype from the AP.net sect, ready to believe in Nolan and his new crew. No one really knew what to expect–Nolan was the shouter in TBS, the emotive second singer who screamed all the important or undocumented lyrics that so many fanboys loved so much. Would he form a band to rival Taking Back Sunday’s manic, angry energy?
Nope. In lieu of hardcore, Nolan treated listeners to emo-pop. EMO-POP. One of the most respected figures in the Long Island Post Hardcore scene was writing sappy piano ballads and telling us to “sing like you think no one’s listening.”
Nolan was doing the same angry things he did in Taking Back Sunday, just refracting them through a much more sweet and accessible lens. He was incredibly angry with Lazarra, and lashed out at him from the get-go (“The Perfect Ending” is at the same time an introduction to fans to Straylight Run, a reminder that Lazarra was the chief culprit in the Taking Back Sunday break-up, and that Nolan fucking hates him).
Straylight was instantly more personal than Brand New, Taking Back Sunday or any of their cohorts. What Straylight Run had was the idea that they cared about how listeners heard them, and thus were more important to the audience than they were the critics. Taking Back Sunday, Brand New and the like had their air of selfishness. They somehow believed that their high-school level problems were fitting of critical and popular praise. In Taking Back Sunday’s case, they were validated. But Straylight was never focused on making something critically great. Nolan was more interested in seeming like he was older and wiser than Lazarra, mainly by predominantly using a piano, which was obviously a symbol of maturity (Have they invented a sarcasm font yet?).
But was Straylight Run any good? They had limitless energy, a knack for writing hooks (“Dignity & Money” was like an earworm single Something Corporate wrote and threw away) and a built-in fan base. They were praised for their venture into the pop spectrum, but that praise was mostly levied by those who already knew the backstory with Taking Back Sunday and Lazarra. Supporting Straylight Run was tantamount to supporting your best friend’s new lover after a bad breakup. They may not be the solution, but if your friend’s happy, then fine.
Straylight Run stands the test of time, but for the wrong reasons.
Straylight Run, now, are nostalgia. They are the living essence of that rebellious soul within a lot of graduated emo kids, the kids who wanted no more than just to rock out to Glassjaw, wearing their black hoodies to basement shows and start dating that girl who just dyed her hair pink. Straylight was a bridge to a different time. They made it ok to listen to a love song: “Sunrise Highway” is one of those songs listeners can laugh about now that they’ve heard better versions of it by other bands, but they could never have imagined listening to those bands without “Sunrise Highway.”
Michelle Nolan was always an easy target for criticism, but she broke a trend of male-dominated emo that eventually spawned Hayley Williams, Lydia and myriad others. Nolan was angry, and would always be angry; the war of songs between Taking Back Sunday and Straylight struck another blow when Lazarra fired back on Taking Back Sunday’s sophomore album, Where You Want to Be. Straylight Run being different was enough to ignore their innocuous sameness within the larger pop spectrum. Nolan was always far too introspective to be a pop star like Andrew McMahon of Something Corporate or Nate Reuss of The Format (who guests on “For the Best”), but he was a fitting bridge for introspective listeners to dive into something a little more extroverted.
Straylight Run exited with a few choice cuts that still stand up (“The Tension and the Terror” is a stellar example of the combination of youth exuberance and crushing insecurity that comes when you lose your virginity). But the thing that Straylight Run meant in the long run was much more than a collection of emo-pop songs. It was a green light for the straightedge kids to start branching out in the world.