It’s funny how life imitates art, huh? Initially inspired by the whirlwind year prior, The Front Bottoms’ latest work In Sickness & In Flames chronicles the ups and downs of Brian Sella and Mat Uychich’s lives – marriage, emergency surgeries, and property burning down (hence the In Flames part). But then 2020 went to shit and The Front Bottoms’ fifth album has undertaken a completely new meaning (lyrics like It’s like I’m wearin’ a mask/But you could still see my face are so unintentionally poignant and just kind of sufficiently sums up the ongoing tension of this year). Produced by Mike Sapone, In Sickness & In Flames is the duo’s most genuine and well-rounded release in their decade-plus long history, meshing prior influences with bolder ideas.
Despite everything falling apart around them, In Sickness & In Flames bursts with a burgeoning optimism throughout. There’s still anxiety and mistakes going on, but the growth showcased in Sella’s lyrics flourish throughout. “everyone blooms” tackles that extensively – the emo-tinged melodies slowly rising until breaking through over its bridge (My attitude, my outlook / I realize now it matters). The band’s patented sense of absurd humor still shines through, blending in seamlessly with the constant anxiety – the raucously infectious “camouflage” and the spirited sing-a-long “jerk” include some all-timers.
Yet there is a level of sincerity that resonates throughout the record’s twelve tracks. Sella taps into the good and bad of relationships current and past – “the truth” is an earnest love song that swells with swirling strings and easy acoustic strumming, turning itself into the catchiest song in the band’s entire discography while the Americana-lean of “the hard way” is a bittersweet take on the imperfections of life taking over, juxtaposing against a beautiful Neon Bible-esque outro surging amongst Sella’s brutal honesty (I’m not perfect, I’m fallin’ apart/It’s not worth it/I bet our vibrations are meetin’ somewhere out there in the air). The roaring “montgomery forever” serves as the album’s centerpiece, illustrating the impermanence of everything around us – gentrification erasing important histories and memories.
What really brings Sella’s words to life is the band’s most focused and accomplished songwriting yet – the worlds of past albums coming together within its own sonic universe. The bittersweet “new song d” takes the best of the self-titled’s goofy charm and Going Grey’s synth-heavy tempos, the charming “bus beat” weaves some Back on Top vibes throughout, and the driving “Fairbanks, Alaska” harkens back to Talon’s urgency. There was no better producer for The Front Bottoms than Mike Sapone, as he pushed the duo to explore new soundscapes and tempos – the grungy “leaf pile” and cinematic “make way” are just two shining examples of band expanding their musical palette. Even being five albums and countless extended plays deep, it feels like The Front Bottoms are just hitting their stride.
The Front Bottoms’ style of buoyant optimism and self-deprecation will always be staples of the Jersey duo’s brand of alt-rock but In Sickness & In Flames does an excellent job of grounding those qualities along with reality and reflection, resulting in a genuine and introspective record that’s essential listening during these fucked-up times.