Years ago, and barely out of my teens, I scribbled music mends broken hearts in the margins of a notebook. I was trying to put to words how finding music, and getting lost in the perfect song, could save your life. It was melodramatic. It was true.
Over the past two years, while locked down in a global pandemic, we as a society have experienced previously unimaginable trauma. Mass death. Isolation and fear. Uncertainty and rage. And as we begin to navigate what life looks like next, I’m reminded of those four little words I once scratched across a piece of lined paper. Now, I’m not arrogant enough to think I have a universal answer, but I know for me, in my moments of despair, I reconnected with music and it pulled me out. Last year, discovering Turnstile flipped a fuse in my brain that showed me how to love music again. It unlocked something within me and reminded me what it was like to feel the joy of finding a new favorite band. And this year, it’s discovering an album that feels like it could have only been made after what we all just went through. An album that not only helps define the state of the world but the ethos of a generation. The album is Goodbye to Misery; the band is Cold Years.
I’ve always used music as a metric of remembrance, with periods in my life defined by the albums I was listening to. But it goes further than that. At the core, music is what we have long used to tell our stories. To pass down the legacy, the learnings, the trials, and the current mindset from one generation to another. You can listen to music and hear the pain, hear the joy, hear the triumphs, and feel the defeats. It’s a way to mark our personal lives and build milestones of collective memory. And Goodbye to Misery is an album that could only have been birthed from the well of COVID. An album that paints the state of the world with an American Idiot like clarity and mirrors a generational attitude back through the speakers. And it’s done with a maturity and grace far beyond expectations for a band on just their sophomore release.
The album opens with “32.” This is a song that combines the theatrical stomp pop-punk of Green Day with the gravel-throated storytelling and blue-collar leanings of The Gaslight Anthem. This is a song that boldly says, “We are generation overdrawn / We are generation fuck it all,” with acerbic sincerity. And it’s here that we see the foundation of the entire record. It’s an album that combines melody and bullet-proof choruses with a dry wit and wry honesty. It’s an album about taking risks, betting on yourself, and living a life of your own making.
Let’s look at the title track, “Goodbye to Misery,” with its opening refrain:
Another year has passed me by Behind a window we watched it fly I can't remember it all it was so long ago We lost our heads and we lost our connections To everything we always took for granted A generation in utero
It's a song looking back at the past few years, reflecting on being shut off from in-person connections and the consequence of this stasis. But then it turns to the chorus, marrying this idea of being alone with the impact of music:
'Cause the songs inside our heads Keep us alive when there's nobody left Turn up the volume for company Someone else's words unsaid Become your own to say again and again Say goodbye to the misery
I think it's a feeling many of us can relate to. The frozen moments inside our headphones, alone but feeling companionship with the words of someone we've never met. The music is a mantra pulling you from reality while giving you hope and a reason to move forward. Both a reprieve and a creed. And it's this duality, of feeling seen and feeling inspired, that ignites the magic within this album. Because it's an album unwavering in aspiration while feeling like a conduit for the sounds we've had locked inside of us, like a purgatory ghost searching for the catharsis of release. Release not only from the past few years but release for a generation that, in many ways, feels like we've lost control of our lives. A generation told to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps by the same assholes with their boots pressed to our throats.
The band's debut full-length, Paradise, had similar stylistic underpinnings, but I find that the added theatrical elements to this album elevate it. It takes a coliseum anthem quality and mixes it with the dive bar sweat of punk rock to build an album around not just the realities of current life but also a defiant ode to pressing forward no matter what that life throws at you. This is buoyed by an undeniable big-ness to the sound. A weight behind the guitars, behind the kick of the drum, and this layered approach builds throughout the album, barely pausing to let you catch a breath before its climax.
And it all starts with lead singer Ross Gordon delivering an urgent vocal performance. He's able to deliver lines with snarl and bite, but then also pull it back on little melodies that remind me of Warning:-era Billie Joe. Where the vocals hang on the last part of a word, with a slight echo, letting it rattle the chorus around in your brain just a little longer. It's here where a song like "Hey Jane" moves from being a catchy but simply nice song to an absolute ear-worm. And it gets there almost entirely due to these vocal inflections. Or if we look at the closer, "Control," and how he delivers the lines, "I watch my parents as they're growing old / They spent their lives in love without parole / I spent my youth drinking out in the cold / Young love sending fire to my soul." It's found in how the "o" is held in the tail rhyme of this verse. You could choose to sing that verse differently, perhaps by moving quickly through it. But the way it's held gives the song a marching in the streets sing-a-long quality. Thereby making the piece more engaging with these chant-able portions echoing the motivational message of the track. And by the end, the listener feels like standing up to chant right along with the band, "I'm tired of being controlled / Sometimes, you can't make it on your own / Sometimes, you have to risk it all."
For a sophomore album to have this clarity of vision and sound this good, this tight, and this fully realized, is a testament to the band's dedication to craft. They sound like a band far beyond their years. This comes through in a song like "Jack Knife." The first verse bounces in like an out-of-control buzzsaw before the music pulls back to deliver the line, "I'll never bow to anyone, your fucking highness." And then it kicks right into the chorus with the perfect cocktail of two parts harmony and one-part shout. I'm reminded of how Against Me! mixes melody with aggression to pull the listener through a song, structuring the music around these little bursts of pure adrenaline.
In my career writing about music, there have been a handful of bands that have turned my head and made me say, "Yep, that's it, they have the undefinable quality I'm calling it." This is the next one. After walking through the hell of the last two years, this album feels like an anthem that reflects the times we're in through a musical mirror. And isn't that part of what draws us to music like this in the first place? If that feeling when an artist captures a private thought and lets you know you're not alone is electricity, then when the sentiment of the collective gets shot through your speakers is a lightning bolt to the back of the head.
When Green Day released American Idiot in 2004, the landscape and how music was consumed was much different. The radio still mattered, MTV still played videos, and you could feel a groundswell build around that album. It captured a snapshot of the culture, a musical polaroid of the fury building after 9/11, and it seeped into the mainstream consciousness to become a rock and roll touchstone. I don't think a guitar-driven album can resonate with the masses in the same way in 2022. It's harder for anything to breakthrough, and the consumption model is once again extremely single-heavy, with bite-sized song-bits driving much of the social media conversation. But in a world where so much feels tailor-made for drive-by virality, it's hard for me not to wonder how much of it becomes as disposable as the 15-second video it soundtracks. I think about these things because this album is the closest I've heard since American Idiot to capturing a moment in time for this genre, and yet I truly wonder how many people will ever experience it. It's an album born from a global pandemic that paints the frustration and swelling anger of the past few years with striking clarity; however, there's a good chance that only our little corner of the music listening world will ever hear it. But with that, I've come to believe that how many people an album impacts matters less than the size of impact it has on those that it does reach. And by that metric, I think this album has the potential to be as important to those that hear it as the albums we have long considered classics of the genre.
I return to thinking about the kid scratching a pen across a notebook on a random college day, turning back the clock to when I was searching for words to describe music's healing comfort from heartbreak. But heartbreak can take many shapes. And time has a way of showing you most of them. And if you're not careful, the byproducts of apathy and disillusionment can be left behind; festering stones in the shoe of life. In my youth, I liked to believe music could mend these wounds. Not heal. Not make you forget. But add a soothing balm to the edges of existence. That theory has been tested many times. But here, now, in the wake of the last two years, with the loss of connection, the anxiety, and the trappings of self-doubt still lingering in the air like the virus we've feared, I still think I was right. I still believe in the power of song. I still believe that the anthems we sing along to can become the legacy we leave behind. And if there's any motto I could think to write across a notebook today, it might as well damn be, "Goodbye to Misery."