Ne Plus Ultra: TWIABP Feels For You
You can't talk about The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die without speaking in terms of enormity. In an age of artists who record entire albums in bedrooms or garages and can transmogrify the playing of one person into the output of a full band, TWIABP has more full-time members than most working bands - the ongoing joke-question of "How will they all fit on that [small of a] stage?" continues to be funny because it bears more than a kernel of truth. The stoic minimalism that much rock music skews toward today has yet to rain on their parade - their songs and arrangements lean into crescendos and diminuendos, very often reaching outright maximalism. Yet, of all the ways in which TWIABP simply has more "more" to offer, none outweighs the importance of the one thing that separates them from nearly all of their peers: raw feeling. And it is in this area where they approach a true ne plus ultra status of near untouchability.
When I talk to anyone about this band, it is always about the emotional journey of listening to their songs. While profiles in the music press seem eager to push the dual "wink-wink-nudge-nudge" narratives of the band's "fitting" name (cuz there's a lot of them and they make dramatic music, get it?) and the fact that they have had more personnel changes since forming in 2009 than most bands have in 20 years (which actually makes some sense, given the size of the roster), many seem to overlook the sheer quality of the music and the group's rightful place at or near the summit of the mountain that is the current post-emo scene.
Seeing them play again recently on tour behind newest LP Always Foreign brought this back to me in a visceral way. When listening to their work in the safety of your home or car, you can control the level of authority that you give it over your emotions. If the epic nature of "January 10th 2014" is a little too much in a given moment, you can skip the track or lower the volume; conversely, if you are jonesing for a rousing anthem to shout along with, you can turn "Haircuts for Everybody" up to the proverbial "eleven" and play it several times in a row. But when seeing them live, the music coalesces around its own agency - the sentiment behind it, distilled from years of camaraderie and generated by musicians at the height of their powers, explodes all over the crowd in ways that can be uncontrollable at the individual level. Fully engaging with the music in a moment like that can overpower you, or it can give you more power, and either of those scenarios is a positive.
The indisputable magnitude of what is at play here serves to emphasize the level of restraint necessary to pull off the understated beauty of the more ambient and low-key pieces. "You Can't Live There Forever" is a showcase for this ability: as the lead track from 2015's Harmlessness, it is an unassuming and mostly-acoustic ditty built around a simple guitar line that grows in layers through its second half but then pulls back masterfully just before a massive payoff, providing a proper entry point for the album's constantly shifting ebb and flow. The beauty here is not only in the construction of the song, it is in everything TWIABP could have done with it but chose not to - like the old adage about jazz players, it's the notes they're not playing. Statements made by omission are still statements, and this band understands that at a more fundamental level than most.
It is easy to be jaded about displaying honest feeling in music. Those of us old enough to remember can speak of growing up in a time when it suddenly become very uncool to care about things. It was anathema to appear to be trying for anything. While not all the way there yet, it has taken a long time for the pendulum to at least begin the swing back toward genuine earnestness, and TWIABP are at the vanguard of bands attempting (consciously or not) to push music back toward an full-hearted sense of openness. While I can and do respect the clinical mentality of many artists who cling to the intellectualism of their art, even at the expense of some of its vigor, I find that my older self is increasingly likely to respond to music that feels as much as, if not more than, it thinks.
For their part, the band is not oblivious to the climate of prevailing attitudes that they are wading into and helping to dismantle. If you want a mission statement, look no further than "Getting Sodas": "the world is a beautiful place / but we have to make it that way". They routinely donate proceeds to causes and to activist organizations from the ACLU to the Immigrant Defense Project, proving that striving for a better world is something that they are serious about in a tangible way. Where bands in the past may have been content to offer vague platitudes about how their music or art was meant to increase positivity and make the world a better place, it is beyond refreshing to see one that actually backs that up with charitable work and donations (though to be fair, this is true of many artists in the post-Obama era).
So a conversation about whether or not you should listen to TWIABP really begins and ends with the question of whether you are ready to get invested in a band that wears its heart on its sleeve. For listeners who have yet to discover them or take the time to get familiar, their world is one of melodic landscapes that can be seismic in scope and grandeur or fragile mosaics painstakingly crafted from thousands of grains of sand to be wiped away with the wave of a hand. Their sound is the sound of a generation waking up to the idea of being woke, and their courage lies in their ability to keep facing forward and find strength in numbers. TWIABP is comfortable with the discomfort of human emotion and willing to guide you through its messier moments toward epiphanies of sheer bliss and inclusivity, if you let them.
The world really is a beautiful place after all, if you can see it, believe it, and work for it. All the phases rock-n-roll has gone through over the past 30 years could never have prepared us for this: a band whose very name can inspire goosebumps might be the ones who save us all from being too cool to care.