By 1997, when “Nothing Feels Good” was released 20 years ago, emo had scrubbed up noticeably from Rites of Spring’s eponymous 1985 debut, which is generally considered to be the inception of the genre. Emo had drifted from thrashing power chords and howled declarations of anguish into more cerebral waters, the genre’s requisite introspection now matched rather than obscured by its music. The likes of Shudder to Think’s “Pony Express Record” in 1994 and Sunny Day Real Estate’s “Diary” the same year had drifted so far from the old template of hardcore that emo was blossoming into its own, albeit loose, musical style. Two years later American Football would spin emo into an even gentler, almost math-rock gossamer. As with punk, hip-hop or any other pioneering cultural movement, the apparatus of big business eventually caught wind of it and before you could say “Simple Plan” this counter-culture was homogenised and absorbed into the mainstream culture, simply becoming another facet of it: the increasingly slickness of late-90s emo foreshadowed the hyper-stylised and chronically edgy beast the genre would morph into in the 2000s.
“Nothing Feels Good” is to a certain extent a bellwether of this change. With its polished production and unshakeable earnestness, it’s easy to see its echoes in a string of cookie-cutter noughties emo bands that further diluted this template into cliché. The nasal confessionals and octave solos to come are breathing down the neck of “Nothing Feels Good”, although it remains closer to Jawbreaker than Yellowcard. However, its placement at the crossroads of DIY rawness and airbrushed angst grants it surprising autonomy to cherry-pick musically. “Red and Blue Jeans” is an achingly sad track quickly sabotaged by cymbal-smashing Neanderthal buffoonery, and the arpeggiated thoughtfulness of Mineral clearly encroaches on the mordant “Raspberry Rush”.
However, part of the problem is that “Nothing Feels Good”, put vulgarly, blows its load immediately with phenomenal opener “Is This Thing On?”, which combines melodic beauty, exhilarating pace and earworm-y insistence, and thereafter struggles to recover. Highlights afterwards are scattered—the pitch-perfect transitional melancholy of “Make Me a Chevy” gives way to the unremarkable ambience of the aptly named “How Nothing Feels”, and the shrewd purpose of “Pink Chimneys” concaves into “B is for Bethlehem”, which is the same song inflated into aimless flailing and amusing Biblical references.
For all its segments of melodic sumptuousness, paradoxically the greatest strength of “Nothing Feels Good” is its lack of distinction. There’s an almost alluring anonymity to the vocals, which sound like any hollering American kid, and emo’s profound sense of inclusion as a medium invariably invites the listener to project themselves into the insular psychodrama of the album. Attempting to use “Nothing Feels Good” as a microcosm for emo is inevitably tenuous but its intoxicating contrast with the clearly delineated, stage-managed personalities that would emerge in the genre in the new millennium cement its relevance. A work fascinating in its facelessness. CO
Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uv2rPPJ_XLM