Despite all of its bittersweet essence, few things are as inherently mesmerizing as a reflection on the past. For every new pin in our cork boards, it grows easier by the day to become entangled in the through-line that connects them — from our most inimitable highs, to the devastatingly irreclaimable lows. The sight of the same model car you once drove can trigger an afternoon’s worth of flashbacks, places visited, and relationships formed. A sudden difficult decision may silently launch a week of intricate recollection. Retracing steps, tiring over minute details and things left unsaid. And though we can’t control it, the fact remains that on some level, our memories are revisited daily. We subconsciously roam the rooms of our mind, dusting its shelves and replaying stories like slides in an old projector. Toeing the line between toxic and therapeutic behavior. In a sense, the deliberate attempt to walk that line is perhaps the most distinguishable aspect of what sets Nella Vita apart from the pack of Grayscale’s pop-punk contemporaries.
“I drove past your mother’s house / just to see how it felt / How’s it all been since we were kids / Just hope that you’re doing well.”
For a genre that often prides itself on being able to bare a sensitive heart to the world, pop-punk rarely does so in a productive way — often displaying anger riddled lyrics that avoid resolution, or give a reductive stiff arm to the face of genuine contemplation. But here in the opening moments of the Philadelphia quintet’s third official release, vocalist Collin Walsh sets the tone for his desire to examine the magnetism of reflecting on the past, molding the cyclical experience of love and death into a brutally honest depiction of life. Amidst a hard-panned drum machine and shimmering acoustic guitars, he pens a mental love letter to an old flame, pulling no punches in using his most explicit memories as ink when the band bursts into an anthemic cacophony: “Do you remember when we fucked in my car / Swore to God I would die for you / and I meant it.” It’s an immediate reminder of the mind-racing turbulence that life adapts in place of the intimate nuance that we tend to seek in retrospect.
Moments like this might lead you to believe that sonically, Grayscale has gone the way of the average “mature” pop-punk band. You know the formula: ditch the forbidden beat, dial down the gain knobs, and call it growth. And in some cases, it’d be tough to say otherwise — the driving beat and triumphant gang vocals of a post-acoustic pick-me-up, “Desert Queen,” are a stark reminder of the Warped Tour adjacent scene they’ve occupied for the better part of a decade. But more often than not, it’s apparent that the time spent with a bonafide alternative rock production giant, Machine (Armor For Sleep, Every Time I Die, Lamb Of God), was enough to afford them the opportunity to hatch a flourishing amalgamation of their varied influences, ultimately leaving the pop-punk genre tag in the rearview.
On the air-tight late album groover “In My Arms,” drummer Nick Veno vigorously powers through cotton candy synthesizers and 80’s inspired guitar tones that’d fit seamlessly into your favorite John Hughes film. And while the spit-polished shuffling rhythm comes with enough spirit to leave you dizzy with a sugar rush, Walsh takes the opportunity to punctuate his bandmates by recalling nights spent commiserating with drug addiction: “Sugar in my arms / give me the bad blood / make it alright / save me tonight.” Earlier on, the band evokes their best impression of The 1975 with a jittery electronic bridge in “Baby Blue,” while the ear-splitting openly strummed verses and guitar solo of “Twilight” would be comfortably at home on a tracklist assembled by The Maine. Meanwhile, the boomerang duo of “Painkiller Weather” and the unfathomably catchy “What’s On Your Mind” is spent repaying a debt to the 90’s pop-rock that once possessed us to sing back to the warm glow of MTV-branded television screens.
But by definition, Nella Vita — a direct Italian translation of the words ‘In Life’ — would be incomplete if only the past were it to endure. Not only does Walsh rise to the occasion when it comes time to address his current, optimistic mental state (“YOUNG”), alongside the run-ins with death that led him to it (“Old Friends”, “Tommy’s Song”) — but he goes as far as to discuss his wishes regarding his own demise on the album’s tremendous lead single, “In Violet”. “I’m sick of funeral black / so when I don’t come back / I want you to celebrate / sing and laugh.” For a moment, his sprightly delivery feels premature as the pounding rhythm section comes to a halt, leaving pulsing synths and reverberated guitar feedback to fill the room he appears to have just failed reading. And just before the listener has a moment to second guess what comes next, the remaining air leaves the room to make way for a soul-stirring wall of sound: “Bury me in violet / Smile for me when you set me free / Dance the pain away / Trade in my soul for your grief / when I leave this wonderful place.”
This wonderful place. Is there a better distillation of the lives we live?
On its surface, Nella Vita effortlessly succeeds in providing 12 songs that your saliva drenched steering wheel will definitely hate you for. But where it holds its weight is in the ability to capture the lawless, unscripted narrative of life. And though the experiences we encounter along the way remain entirely unpredictable, Grayscale have cultivated a neon brimmed reminder not just to absorb them, but to savor the emotions they spark within us. They’re our recourse for returning love. Our fuel for retaliating against pain, and showing the scars of where we’ve been. They’re for coping with our innate inability to control the world around us, but also for determining how we confront it. Constantly adapting proof that life is fragile, but built from more than the sum of its parts, and a glistening example of what makes it so wonderful to be alive.