Nothing feels good like you in red and blue jeans
And your white and night things
Nothing Feels Good is one of my all-time favorite albums. It is beyond perfect. Great emo music is predicated on nervousness and anxiety. Nothing Feels Good is intimately relatable, while remaining partly unidentifiable. It’s lyrically abstract in a highly personal way. Promise Ring leader Davey von Bohlen simultaneously gives us everything and nothing with his words and music. Nothing Feels Good is an album where every single song sounds exactly as if it was ripped from my own life. The relatability is positively uncanny. When I listen to a track like Red & Blue Jeans, I find myself closer to music than I’ve ever felt before. Even though the song is lyrically non-specific, von Bohlen sings just enough correctly placed words to conjure a very deep and precise emotional reaction from me.
It’s a song with only one line of lyrics: “Nothing feels good like you in red and blue jeans and your white and night things.” These are the most eternal, most emotionally resonating lyrics to me in all of rock music. With only a handful of words carefully inserted into a song that’s barely three minutes in length, I’m completely transported and captured. Those words express so much so much to me that I honestly lose myself in them completely. I lock into a very personal and emotional mediation. Just from that single sentence you can derive that von Bohlen knows this person intimately. It’s implied that he knows her inside and out, day and day out. He knows her in her day and night-wear. He knows what she feels like when she’s awake and what she feels like when she’s in bed with him. He also knows that nothing will ever feel good like that again. Nothing will ever feel as good as her and the clothes she wears when he thinks about her. Nothing will ever feel as good as the image in his mind of her. Nothing will ever bring those moments back. The images and the colors are there, she’s not. This is what he’s left with to think about. She’s absent. She’s gone. But the colors and the way those colors felt are seared deep inside of him.
Nothing Feels Good is an azure emo masterwork. The album sounds the way its cover looks. It’s not atmospheric in any conventional way but a world is being built here. It sounds the same way every day of your twenties feels. The album’s not epic or conceptual or whatever, but the songs inhabit a very unique and clearly defined universe. There is a nostalgic precipice, but it’s a ledge The Promise Ring are too dignified for. Rather this is a record that seizes a more poetically symbolist color palette. While the sonic landscape is steeped in aural colors that are surely primary, The Promise Ring use them not only for classicist pop motifs but these reds, blues, and greens also paint a very anxious picture of twenty-something year old iconography. The Promise Ring use sonic orange to express enthusiasm and sonic yellow to convey a lonely and sentimental hunger. Von Bohlen achieves this sound of purely vivid color in many ways, be it musically, thematically, atmospherically or lyrically. Red & blue jeans–white and night things.
Sonic greens to demonstrate a nervous maturity and tonal reds to articulate perpetually anxious desires. Sonic blues take heartbreaking shapes, revealing the most tender, aching sadness I have ever felt from emo music. Nothing Feels Good takes a used set of watercolors to depict a modern pop-art perfection. This is emo music’s Mona Lisa. In emo’s rendering of Da Vinci’s woman, she wears Magritte’s bowler derby, a pair of red & blue jeans, and her smile is the all the more abstracted by a lifetime of unfulfilled promises. Nothing feels good to her but that’s not entirely unexpected. For The Promise Ring, nothing feels good to them because that’s simply what personal and physical growth does to people. Nothing Feels Good is about realizing that you’re getting older, kind of lonelier, and suddenly being full of a wanting desire to just feel good about something again. Everything just…..doesn’t feel good at all. There are reasons, of course, there’s relationships going south and the realization that you’re never going to have the things you’ve always wanted. These are teenage anxieties transitioning into adult problems.
The Promise Ring were given life by Davy von Bohlen’s previous band, the emo juggernauts Cap’n Jazz. I fucking loved Cap’n Jazz. Their version of A-ha’s Take On Me is the most goddamn FUN emo song ever recorded. It’s a pure rush of awesome joy—makes me go WOOOOO! The most fruitful results of Cap’n Jazz, other than the plethora of bands that claim them as a primary influence, were the offshoots The Promise Ring and the Mike Kinsella led American Football. Just two years after Nothing Feels Good would reshape the emo landscape of 1997, Kinsella would reach the same heights of esteem with the self-titled American Football debut LP in 1999. Where American Football would pursue emo instrumental aesthetics to their logical math-y ends, The Promise Ring devoted themselves to mining a more pop-centric soundscape out of traditional emo anthemics. I find that if you take Nothing Feels Good in one hand, with American Football in the other—if you then squash them together—SPLAT–you get something not unlike a Cap’n Jazz sounding record. It’s interesting to hear exactly where each integral part of Cap’n Jazz’s unique style came from. Nothing Feels Good expands on the poppier, more punk-friendly sonic elements established first by Cap’n Jazz and they make some brilliant additions to them, all while eloquently planting the seeds of a musical language all their own. One of primary colors and complicated, chromatic dilemmas.
I’m going to be honest with my readers. I’m actually going through a pretty significant breakup right now. It’s the anti-climactic end to a seven year engagement. It is certainly the end of an era. So. This album is more important to me right now than it’s ever been before. Nothing Feels Good might actually mean more to at this moment than any other album has ever meant to me in all my life. Only really great emo music can get you to gush in such oversentimentality over a record. But I’m being with real with you. I’m fucking sad. But I’m also a fucking adult. I’m twenty seven years old. Heartache is hitting me differently now. I don’t remember it feeling like this before. It’s not as intense as it was when I was a teenager. It’s somehow an unfeeling feeling not to be mistaken for numbness. The images of her definitely hurt. They are absolutely very specific images, conjuring up a very precise and fixed sadness. They bring about a lonely confusion more than anything else. There’s certain moments that feel like they’re killing me but they’re all from a long time ago. I cant stop thinking about those polaroid-like moments.
Like every other milestone of my adult life, the most significant breakup I have ever experienced feels anticlimactic, as if I’ve misplaced something incredibly vital from my youth that enabled me to process bad feelings in a healthy way. Growing up is just, I don’t know, like that I guess. It’s full of misses and realizing that nothing is ever as important as it seems. Nothing ever feels as good as it should no matter how much poetry you force into it. The truth of adulthood is that nothing feels good period. But it’s not as if life then becomes an endless series of depressive motifs. The Promise Ring are not really a depressing band. They use their music to make the most out of bad feelings. Feelings that don’t go away. Feelings that should have disappeared along with acne, long teary-eyed phone calls with first crushes, and all those other staples of the high school experience. Nothing Feels Good is about teenage feelings and how poorly they adapt into adult ones.
At its core Nothing Feels Good is really about being unsure about everything there is to be unsure about. The album’s title track is symbolist take on modern depression. But let me stress the absolutely crucial point that the LP is never outright depressing. Maybe von Bohlen’s immediate and constant relatability is where the magic lives. He’s singing about awful feelings but the music and the emotions he provokes in his listener are never awful in turn. It actually inspires that uniquely teenage feeling of blind affection for a band that absolutely seems to get where you’re at emotionally. Pink Chimneys is dynamic enough to be both heartbreaking and motivating at the same time and during the delivery of the same line. Pink Chimneys rouses a myriad of different emotions from all parts of the colorful human spectrum. Pink Chimneys can make you feel both happy and kind of sad, but sad in a regular, tragic, familiar, also ultimately affectionate sense.
The only album that even comes remotely close to this one in terms of sheer relatability is probably There’s Nothing Wrong With Love released by Built To Spill in 1994. Whereas Doug Martsch’s approach was almost hyper-specific and lyrically verbose, von Bohlen takes a very specific image and abstractly chews on it. The Promise Ring boil emotional trauma down to simple mantras. They’re not brooding, they’re ruminating.
Nothing Feels Good is emo mediation by way of pop sensitivity. Every song takes something very particular, always some sort of image, and contemplates the meanings of it openly and with vulnerability. There’s always an emphasis on melody and pop dynamics. The songwriting sensibilities as demonstrated by The Promise Ring seem to suggest that perhaps pop music informs our emotions and that by examining them with that kind of familiar language in mind is the only way von Bohlen can accurately process them and ascertain the worth of a given image frozen in time. Perhaps the album is musically deliberate in that way. Some sort of literalist expression of needing something to feel good the same way a pop song feels good. It’s possible that The Promise Ring are attempting to shower their anxieties and uncertainties in an uplifting sonic format that operates retroactively, making a happy song sad and a sad song happy. These are all tracks about ideas. They’re about smashingly specific ones. The beautiful thing is how abstractly they’re called upon for closure. You get the feeling von Bohlen just won’t stop until he garners some sort of tangible meaning from them and applies that sacred meaning to something else in his life that seems to lack any. He’s trying to better himself by understanding why certain images are so important to him, why they make him feel so many things, and why none of them are good.
Nothing Feels Good collects twelve different and unique images. Each song is like a different color. There’s something incredibly meaningful about each one. In order to derive the full meaning of every color and every image, The Promise Ring zeroes in on its core features and search for something tangible. They’re looking hard for something that makes them understand why they feel this way about a particular image in their minds. The image must have meaning, they’re must be some sort of positive substance there, something you can take away from it, or else why do images like these get frozen-stuck in your head? My images are the same as the Promise Ring’s and I can see the same colors that they do. I search with them. Maybe it’s fruitless but I don’t believe that. There must be something intelligible there. All of these unhappy emotions stem from a handful of unforgettable images. There must be something I forgot, something I missed about them. There must be something to it all.
Perhaps the most perfect album of all.