Written by Vincent Klug
What does nostalgia sound like? I suppose it depends on the person you ask. The sound of a crushed velvet dress rubbing against the velour seats in your boyfriend’s car. The crackle of a clove cigarette in the air on a cold college night. “School’s Out” blowing out the speakers of an Oldsmobile in late June. The Windows ’95 startup sound. It might even be Johnny Carson on a Tuesday night. But for me, it’s Nothing Feels Good.
You’re All I Remember
Twenty years ago, on October 11, 1997, The Promise Ring released Nothing Feels Good. The sophomore album for the sophomore, the junior, the dropout, and the recent graduate in all of us. At the time, Boyz II Men’s album Evolution was number one the charts and OK Computer was just a few months old. I was five and lived 40 minutes away from The Promise Ring’s hometown of Milwaukee, WI. I wouldn’t hear the record until 18 years later and five states away; I have no clue what it would have been like to stroll through the shrink-wrapped aisles of a record store that fall and lay my eyes on a cassette with that blurred woman on a bike and those colorful circles. But even for people picking up the album twenty years on, it really begins with that cover.
If you ask the people who were there at the time and did buy the record from their local CD shop you get two reactions: some don’t distinctly remember picking the album out of a crowd with too much fanfare because it feels familiar the first time you pick it up. It catches your eye like a Polaroid at the bottom of a shoebox you forgot was under your bed. On the other hand, you have people like me whose eye it caught for exactly the same reason. It feels familiar. There is something about it that is so instantly iconic, and once you hear the album the art looks exactly like the record sounds — the melancholic fun of an abandoned amusement park in the morning.
This record is why I will always and forever be a supporter of album reissues. You’ve probably heard some snobbier music fans decry them. “The remaster sounds worse.” “Why reissue it, when there are old copies around for someone who is willing to track them down?” Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But it was the remastered reissue of Nothing Feels Good two years ago that led me to this record. I saw the album art on a music site listed as a new release, the art caught my eye, the description sounded interesting and I picked up a copy a few weeks later when I saw it on the shelf.
According to the album designer and second guitarist of the band, Jason Gneiwkow, the design “was kismet.” The impact of the circles, the colors and the white. Red and Blue (and yellow and green.) The photos (taken by Tim Owen) just happened to be the most recent pictures on the reel when Jason had called asking for pictures. Even the typography was really just the result of Jason being “obsessed with the ‘G’ in Univers at the time.”
In the intervening twenty years, the album cover still holds up and Trimper’s Rides in Ocean City, Maryland (where the photo was taken) is largely still the same. As a part of this article, I packed a bag and hit the road as a sort of musical pilgrimage to the site where the cover was taken — a journey not so different from the cavalcades of tourists who consistently block a section of Abbey Road in London pretending to be the Beatles. Today at Trimper’s, the Pepsi logos have all been updated but still promote the perpetually 2nd place cola. The benches aren’t made of wood anymore and there’s an LCD screen that cycles through ads for more tooth shattering sweets. But it feels the same, the “RIDES” sign is just as red, the paint is just as sea-salt sanded, and people still bike up and down the boardwalk.
The scene set by this photo and even the surrounding ambiance of the dusty boardwalk suit the feel of the album and the nostalgia for youth or simpler times that maybe weren’t ever really that simple. While I was there, taking picture after picture, trying to do my best to recreate the photo, a bald man with a mustache came up to me to show me a picture of his daughter he had just taken 20 feet up the boardwalk. A photo in front of the ice cream shop just across the way, because his wife had taken the same picture some 48 years earlier. It’s just that kind of place. I probably looked like I was trying to do the same while fumbling with a guitar case, an LP and a patient friend. It was surreal to sit inside the same frame and canvas I had looked at so many times before.
Is this thing on?
Let’s get something out of the way, “Nothing Feels Good” is an emo record, and like most emo records of its time, it wasn’t designed to be or recognized as such by the band. For the people who listen to NFG for the first time today, it’s a far cry from the Trimper’s Rides Today Hot Topic emo image that now dominates that word in the public consciousness. I’ll admit, for most of my life I discounted emo because that’s exactly what I thought it was: mopey boys, sad girls and eyeliner. It’s not that, but there certainly is a traceable vein that runs through the bands that have shouldered the term, intentionally or not.
Some people call Nothing Feels Good the quintessential emo album, others simply ask the question and point out they literally named the book on it. And while to varying degrees this is all true, the fact is that when you turn on your stereo and crank out each of the 12 songs on this LP the cultural weight of what being “emo” is melts away. It stops being “emo” and transforms into technicolor emotion.
Really, though, albums covers, cultural labels, genres, geography — when a record hits you these things all work together in concert, but at the end of the day (to use the oftinvoked cliche) it’s really all about the music.
Let’s Talk About The Sound
This is not an LP that takes its time to burn. It’s not front-loaded with singles. It’s not housing some anomalous gem of a track three, and it doesn’t wait until the last moment to show itself. Nothing Feels Good is what it is for every one of its two thousand and thirty-one glorious seconds.
Following the recording of 30˚ Everywhere, the Promise Ring shifted towards a more poppy, polished sound and turned to Jawbox’s J. Robbins, who produced the record, to help provide some of that sheen. The songs showcase more mature musicianship and a synergy the band developed in the intervening time between records. The band originally intended to record the album at Easley McCain studio in Memphis, TN but they were told the time they wanted wasn’t available because another artist, Jeff Buckley, was working on his sophomore LP. Then, while touring in Europe, PR learned of Jeff’s death and it was from his ashes that Promise Ring got their studio time.
I wonder if the record could have been projected back another 20 years and had been released in 1977 how it might have been received? To my ear, it wouldn’t sound out of place next to Television’s “Marquee Moon” (a band named checked in the first song.) There is nothing sonically here that makes it sound like too much a product of its time. There are guitars, there are drums, and bass and vocals. Occasionally an acoustic guitar slips in and maybe a slight synthesizer or a piano, but nothing too ostentatious. No breakbeats or gated drums. No brick wall limiting. Just timeless rock and roll. Pure punk.
“Is This Thing On?” kicks the album off with a phrenetic energy. You pop this in your car CD player and by the time you look at the speedometer you realize you’re going 18 miles over the speed limit — headed your way to Delaware or Maine or Everywhere in Denver. And much like the rest of the record, it’s built on a foundation of bass guitar. Scott Beschta who would leave the band after this record (and would be sorely missed) really acts as the instrumental lead more than any other member on this LP. Lead singer, Davey Von Bohlen, would later say that the songs had a voice of bass guitar built on a bed of guitars. And he’s right, it’s that bass that gives this record a jaunty precision that anchors it without spinning out of control. Coupled with razor-sharp drum takes, the rhythm section on this record is what gives it the feeling of riding in a shitty car with only a few drops of gas in the tank and a crew in the back on the cusp of breaking loose into pure, potent chaos — but the album never runs off the road or runs out of gas. Rollercoaster baselines and diligent drums keep the rubber on the road.
“It wasn’t competitive exactly, but there was an element of, like, playing really well out of spite.”
Drummer, Dan Didier, in a 2011 Rolling Stone interview would talk about that tension between bass and drums on the record, “It was a very tumultuous time, at least for me and [original bassist Scott Beschta]. We had basically stopped communicating at that time… [That tightness] is kind of how we dealt with it; it wasn’t competitive exactly, but there was an element of, like, playing really well out of spite. If we were too friendly, maybe it would have been a little looser. We would have been more forgiving. At the time, there was no forgiveness between us. That may have helped the record, in fact!”
The album rolls on into the sly, pop-punky perfection of “Perfect Lines,” “Red & Blue Jeans,” “Why Did Ever We Meet?,” and “Make Me a Chevy.” This stretch of tunes feature the most potent singles and some of the most played songs off of the album, and it’s easy to see why. The interplay of dueling guitars that seem to be trying to fight for who is more out of the spotlight lends an ease and melancholy that let the vocal melodies and the energy of the whole band come through. “Red & Blue Jeans” namechecks the album and might is the best love song ever written with less than twenty words. On “Why Did Ever We Meet?” there is probably the most famous chorus of the album, a lyric (delivered in Davey’s delightful lisp) made up mostly of “ba’s” and “do’s”(“Ba” seems to be the fan favorite.)
Then the album takes a breather and we get to hear “How Nothing Feels.” A flare of experimentalism that sets this album apart from many of its contemporaries. The only instrumental on the album, it might be the most emo song of the record. Steeped in tape hiss and reverb-drenched guitars, it certainly makes me feel something, and the first time I played the record it was here that I realized that this was most certainly something different. It’s sitting in your bedroom and looking up at the squeaking ceiling fan and just thinking.
The band then pushes us out of the bedroom and into a dinner party, or some other indecipherable gathering with another bouncing baseline in “A Broken Tenor.” Before moving on to the perfectly paced (but according to Davey unfortunately named) “Rasberry Rush.”
“Nothing Feels Good” means that life is really bizarre, but at the same time, it feels totally good not to feel as if you know things.”
Then, at the center of the album is the title track, “Nothing Feels Good.” If there ever was a song about feeling everything and nothing at the same time this would probably be it. This song seems to encapsulate what Davey said in a 1998 interview in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “The basic idea is that you think you know things, but really you never know. “Nothing Feels Good” means that life is really bizarre, but at the same time, it feels totally good not to feel as if you know things.” This is the song. You hear echoes of its sister track “How Nothing Feels” and it’s a warm hug, the soft ear of a friend, it’s angst and acceptance. It’s shivering naked on the edge of a pool before you skinny dip. It’s perfect.
When I first heard this album I was going through the delayed existential crisis of the millennial — the post-collegiate fog — and when I heard the lyric, “I don’t go to college anymore.” It broke me. The whole song hits like a semi-truck filled to the brim with nostalgia, philosophy 101 textbooks, poorly written poems, and awkward first romance. When I went to Trimper’s, I played a fumbly version with a backing band of seagulls and surf and if you want to watch it you can. But it really is this song in the context of the others that cements the album as a stalwart example of what it is to feel and think and remember and love. The first crunchy leaf as the end of summer nips into fall.
I Traced All The Letters
It feels like Davey on this song more than any other played with the lyrics in a way that exemplifies the album attitude. On the recording the song clearly ends with the line “I’ve got my hands on the one hand but I don’t know where to put them” but on the album sleeve there is the extra line, “but on the other hand, I don’t know if I’ll talk myself out of this one tonight.” It seems like he talked himself out of singing that extra line, but the liner is full of inconsistencies with the rest of the recordings. Lines completed omitted. Changed. Different. It plays with you, but also provides a wonderful extra treat for the avid fan: the discovery of an extra layer and the internal debate of what the true lyric is.
Is the lyric in “Red & Blue Jeans” “In your white and night things” or “And your ‘why didn’t I?’ things” In my mind, it transmogrifies between both and I’d like to think the band would be okay with that. I made a word cloud of every lyric on the LP and “know” was the most used word; a testament to everything I know and don’t about this record. Even the title can be taken in as this sort of dichotomy: does doing and feeling nothing feel good? Or are you incapable of feeling good anymore?
There are other hallmarks of the lyrics on this album. Colors, places. Other bands (Television, Billy Ocean, Air Supply.) Time, Numbers. Words jump across song to song tying the songs together and lending this album a more cohesive feeling that many other punk albums lack.
Still, the most impressive thing the lyrics do on this album is how precise and detailed they are without being so clear as to what story they are specifically telling. It’s this dictional frosted glass that lends this album it’s universal nostalgia and warmth. It raises the question of “what is knowing?” It pats you on the back. It gives you a map of America and takes you to the Canadian border through the inner states on the interstates.
It only ends
I can’t short the final three songs even though none of them are particularly long. “Pink Chimneys,” “B is for Bethlehem,” and “Forget Me,” close the album with a more doleful tone than the first half — almost in memory of the beginning, but this side of the LP features some of the most lyrically dense and melodic songs. The thing about all of the songs on the record, though, is as sad or emo as any of them are, they still have fun through it all. It’s an album as hopeful and fun as it is introspective and melancholic.
What you’re left with at the last note is a feeling that you’ve got to hear this album again. To make new memories with it as your soundtrack. To hit the road. Somehow it makes you nostalgic for the new memories you might make in the future while still looking back with sepia-tinted tenderness.
I suppose the legacy of Nothing Feels Good isn’t as grandiose culturally as I’d like it to be. The band peaked in the zeitgeist with a performance on Conan, their songs being played on the loudspeakers at Brewer’s games, and a Promise Ring poster on the wall of Strong Sad from the Homestar Runner internet series.
But in the hearts of the fans, there is nothing comparable. Asking around and looking at a few internet boards, I found these memories from a few fans:
“It reminds me of living in Baltimore at age 18. That was the year before 9/11 and looking back it was the simplest time of my life.”
“God, I haven’t listened to these songs in fuckin’ years, and all you fools sharing them have me hopping in my chair and air-fisting like I was 17 again. Writing that made me both sad and happy. Goddamn you, bittersweet memories!”
“Late 90s. Just started living on my own and listening to this on vinyl in my shitty efficiency apartment. Good times!”
For this fan, it’s been difficult to write this and even now looking over it I don’t think I’ve done an adequate job explaining why this album is magic. Why I can’t get tired of it. How it got me through low lows and propelled me at high highs. You just need to listen for yourself. Maybe it’s just something that speaks to the southeast Wisconsin boy in me, but in the end, nothing really doesn’t just feel good, it feels great.
Frankly, I suppose the true irony of nostalgia is that you only ever feel it for times where you were completely consumed by the moment. The static spark and energy of complete feeling, not thinking. This album more than captures the parallax of what it is to be human, to be young, and to feel. There is a song here for just about every moment and I’m glad twenty years on it’s still here for twenty-somethings like me to discover it and I have no doubt the next generations of twenty-somethings, teenagers and everyone else will find something to love about it too. I plan on listening to it until I’m long removed from the first time I heard it and I’m sure I’ll find more to love. It may leave us with a message of “Forget Me,” but I will do anything but that. I really don’t feel like I have the choice.