By 1997, the shine of grunge was wearing off and a new crop of bands was taking music in a more emotionally honest direction. Whether or not their members realized it, they were building the foundation for what would come to be labeled as emo.1997: The Year Emo Broke explores the albums that drove this burgeoning genre that year.
Emo's sad. We get it. It's a trope that's followed the genre since its inception. But for all the devastating emotional lows, there are just as many plateaus. The Promise Ring showed it doesn't always have to be such a pity party, and that catharsis can come in many forms, particularly in the naively optimistic power-pop of 1997's Nothing Feels Good.
The pioneering band walked the line between brusque sentimentality and uplifting hooks, making them emo's first pop emissaries. Cheap Trick for hardcore kids. Vocalist Davey Von Bohlen probed the limits of sugary iteration on his doo-wop-backed hooks, while the tightest rhythm section in emo crafted a danceable pocket to drown in. If Fountains of Wayne, Sebadoh, and Jonathan Richman had an emo love-child, Nothing Feels Good might be its name. The record was a high point for many fans of the band, and is considered one of the pillars of the genre. But shifting personnel, a near-death experience, and Von Bohlen's own brush with mortality made it difficult for the band to fully capitalize on the success of their sophomore LP. Before facing life's severity, The Promise Ring was a young, buoyant band making accessible yet weighty pop-drenched emo.
The Promise Ring began as Davey Von Bohlen's side project during his last days playing in Cap'n Jazz's second incarnation. Though officially based out of Milwaukee, they considered Chicago—and particularly the celebrated venue Fireside Bowl—their de-facto home base. Their 1996 debut full-length on Jade Tree Records, 30° Everywhere, swelled with some of the pop prowess they later refined, but production quality was mediocre at best. The record garnered some attention for them, benefiting from one of the most recognizable 90s emo anthems, "A Picture Postcard," which was previously released on the Falsetto Keeps Time EP (and later covered by Tim Kinsella on The Postmarked Stamp Singles Series). Their relatively impressive sales figures (along with those of Lifetime) also helped propel their label, Jade Tree, to the forefront of the emerging genre.
On Nothing Feels Good, the band wanted to focus on clean production and refining their pop sensibilities. They enlisted one of their idols, Jawbox alum J. Robbins, to produce the record, which resulted in a sharpened coherence in songwriting and a vastly improved sound over their last album. They also cut back on the punky Midwestern emo sound Von Bohlen helped create with Cap'n Jazz, and harmonized their way through their sensitivity.
The album's first four songs explode like a violently shaken soft drink, leaving the listener soaked in its sugar-filled fizz. But a frank hopelessness lies underneath all the candied carbonation. On "Why Did We Ever Meet," Von Bohlen longingly warbles, "Under the threat of sky we lie together. Why care about the weather? It only ends, it ends in darkness." This perfect intersection of pop and suffering was later referenced (with Von Bohlen on guest vocals) on Jimmy Eat World's 2001 breakout album Bleed American. On "A Praise Chorus," Von Bohlen joins Jimmy Eat World by singing, "Our house in the middle of the street, why did we ever meet?"
"Perfect Lines" is emblematic of the sort of tongue-in-cheek, wistful wordplay The Promise Ring became known for. Lines like "Let's talk about the sound of the phone outside of Texaco from Bell South down to a southern belle" likely induced eye-rolls in some, but Von Bohlen's endearing delivery, complete with his charming lisp, made it more than palatable. And though the album's title, Nothing Feels Good, might sound like a defeatist declaration, on "Red and Blue Jeans," Von Bohlen throws a curveball by adding "Nothing feels good… like you in red and blue jeans in your white and night things." It's clear they were a band who could have fun with their feels.
Perhaps because of this light-hearted yet concentrated approach, Nothing Feels Good landed with the kind of fanfare that hadn't been seen for a band from emo's sophomore class, selling over 50,000 records in its initial run, years before Jimmy Eat World's Clarity found its way to a Drew Barrymore movie, and long before Seth Cohen nagged us with weekly Deathcab for Cutie plugs on The O.C. These weren't impressive numbers by mainstream standards, but considering a good run for some of their peers was around 10,000 to 15,000 albums, Nothing Feels Good was veritable emo-platinum.
Nothing Feels Good's place as a momentous emo record is more than just auditory. The album's cover art, shot by Tim Owen and designed by the band's guitarist Jason Gnewikow, is almost as emblematic as the music itself: A bright, pre-Instagram photo of a colorful boardwalk, juxtaposed over a white background with colorful dots strategically lined up. It not only makes the album one of the quintessential visual cues in the emo canon, but also within Jade Tree's aesthetic, as Owens and Gnewikow collaborated on much of the label's art.
The good times couldn't last forever. Before the album was even released, bassist Scott Beschta was replaced by Tim Burton (no relation to the director), who also turned out to be an awful fit. Eventually, they connected with bass player Scott Schoenbeck. Some attribute their failure to match Nothing Feels Good to the loss of the original rhythm section (though others, including the band, attest their follow up Very Emergency is their best work).
Then in February of 1998, on an overnight, winter drive home, the band's tour van flipped over and Von Bohlen flew through the windshield head-first. He suffered some head trauma, while Gnewikow and Burton had some broken bones. Suffering from headaches after the crash, Von Bohlen was eventually diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of a fist, which resulted in a surgery and metal plate in his head. A subsequent staph infection further added to Von Bohlen's time off from the band, severely slowing down their momentum.
The Promise Ring's brand of pop mainlined cheerful bliss into emo, helping the genre's fanbase grow with a more accessible approach. Eventually, bands like Jimmy Eat World managed to capitalize on the poppier version of the sound The Promise Ring helped usher in. On their subsequent releases, particularly 1999's Very Emergency, The Promise Ring drove even further away from emo's foundational elements towards pure pop. But it was the careful intersectional balance on Nothing Feels Good that makes this album one of, if not the defining album of emo's second wave.
Eddie Cepeda is the founder of Mother of Pearl Vinyl and a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.