With Life In Your Glass World, Citizen Break Free From Their Tumblr Emo Daze
Most emo isn’t meant to be interesting. Littered with monotonous instrumentals, tired drawls for vocals, and predictably hopeless lyrics, the genre is inherently supposed to evoke as much as it can with this overdone perpetuation of despair. It can be repetitive, and it can be exhausting — it seems like the point of it is to embody the human tendency towards ennui. Citizen’s 2013 debut Youth did this so well that they could never live up to it; the sedated, mid-tempo pace of “Figure You Out” encompasses the dreary disappointment of being hurt by someone you care about, and the dull riffs holding up “How Does It Feel?” capture the sensation of numbness. It’s a record to put on to echo your own emptiness, which seems to be the purpose of a lot of emo records.
Since then, the Ohio emo group — consisting of vocalist Mat Kerekes, guitarist Nick Hamm, and bassist Eric Hamm — has been trying to find new ways to make an emo record that resonates similarly. And that’s not easy; Youth struck a chord with internet communities almost inexplicably. The aesthetic album art became an important image to scroll by on Tumblr, and the edits of their incredibly dramatic lyrics (“I should’ve crashed the car/ The night I drove alone”) were very compatible with teenage hormones. Sonically, though, it was the same as any emo album; there was nothing particularly interesting about it.
Everybody Is Going To Heaven, their 2015 sophomore effort, sped things up a bit and flirted with post-hardcore. Kerekes screamed more; the instrumentals got noisier and more enigmatic. It was enjoyed by their cult following, but never reached the level of respect and appreciation that Youth did. 2017’s As You Please lost people even more, its sound retreating to the reserved gloomy energy of Youth but without the intensity that bored online users and needy Warped Tour kids longed for.
At some point, Citizen had to switch gears completely. There are only so many ways to experiment with the post-hardcore-inflicted emo that was reiterated by peers like Title Fight and Balance And Composure, who’ve both given up on it themselves. Instead of disappearing, Citizen have been reborn with Life In Your Glass World. Incorporating elements of ’80s new wave, early 2000s dance-punk, and the poppier side of modern-day alt-rock radio, the band has become altogether more direct and accessible, like early Bloc Party or Arctic Monkeys with an emo slant.
That being said, listening to the first couple of tracks can feel like being a rat in a brain stimulation reward experiment where we are just constantly pulling the lever and dopamine never stops rushing. The presence of new wave influence off the bat is startling; as soon as the record starts, it’s like a lightning bolt strikes. It’s faster than ever, going straight into a bass-heavy dance beat that is impossible not to move along with. Everything is different. That bombastic intro, in the aptly-titled “Death Dance Approximately,” brings to mind the Faint’s “I Disappear” or even Death From Above 1979’s “Romantic Rights.”
When Kerekes’ voice comes in, which is the only quality of this song that feels like Citizen, it’s another dopamine rush — just effortlessly satisfactory, especially for an emo vocalist. Even with all the yelling and screaming he’s done in the past, there’s no rasp audible; his voice is somehow intrinsically smooth and polished. And speaking of emo, this track instantly raises the question: Are Citizen still emo? Are there still emo traits to this song?
One of the key differences between typical emo and this new Citizen sound is the payoff. This is not music to feel numb to; this is actual pick-me-up music. It’s engaging in a way that emo usually isn’t. Youth, like most emo records, asked nothing of the listener except to sit and wallow in their sadness. Life In Your Glass World demands more. It’s the opposite of, say, Turnover’s direction, which seems to ask less and less of the listener as each new album comes out. The ambient nature of their songs took the wheel with the band’s 2017 effort Good Nature, which plays like Urban Outfitters background music to bop your head to while picking out overpriced jeans.
Life In Your Glass World does have at least one thing in common with Citizen’s emo releases: anger. “Show me something that you like/ And I’ll write you something better,” Kerekes quips on the power-hungry “Pedestal,” which is cushioned between alike tracks “Call Your Bluff” and “Fight Beat.” This three-song run is less about dopamine and more about adrenaline; Kerekes is, after all, a body builder, and here he brings enough brute-force rage to max out his deadlift. These songs are meant to provoke, which is maybe why they postponed this album for so long — this is moshing music. On “Fight Beat,” he quietly sings: “Cut off your big, fat head/ Keep it as my souvenir.” It’s the worst, most volatile kind of fury, brewing under the surface, deadly.
The emotional stuff is still there, though, and the contrast is unmissable. The mid-tempo “Blue Sunday” is reminiscent of Kerekes’ solo material, where his crooning vocals are the centerpiece and his lyrics are sentimental and meaningful, not just fight talk. “Thin Air” and “Glass World” remind the listener that Citizen do have feelings, are in fact known for having too many feelings. The album ends on one of these soft songs — “Edge Of The World” — whose rhythm and texture resembles a 2000s pop hit. The lyrics are even as corny as one: “At the end of the day/ There is beauty in tragedy.” All of the unexplained aggravation is at once dismissed and Kerekes succumbs to a slogan that can probably be found in a wine mom’s Facebook post.
There is a feeling of misplacement; this juxtaposition of intense throwdown songs and poignant-if-somewhat-vapid ballads in a way sums up the range of Citizen’s discography and gives life to it. All of the past albums have possessed the same anger and sensitivity, it was just too pigeonholed to do anything new. Finally, the band has branched out, found movement, and imbued the songs with vibrant colors. It can be tough for emo bands to break out of their signature sound (cue the pretentious guy saying, “I like their old stuff the best”), but it can yield some fruitful results and even supersede their previous material. This album may not capture Tumblr’s attention, but this kind of inventive impulse won’t go unnoticed — and maybe it will even inspire more emo bands to spice things up a bit.
Life In Your Glass World is out now on Run For Cover. Purchase it here.