In 2013, I moved dully through life after thinking the world was going to end the year before. I searched for thrills in random things: Anonymous accounts on Instagram and Tumblr, a copy of Go Ask Alice my friend lent me, an online pirate of the film The Virgin Suicides. I was failing science and math, staying up until four in the morning watching YouTube videos of Jennifer Lawrence interviews because quirkiness was the newest trend.
You didn’t have to know what emo was to like The Front Bottoms. Girls on Tumblr turned lyrics from “Peach” into embroidery art or tattoos: “You are my peach / You are my plum / You are my earth / You are my sun.” At first, it seems like there’s nothing sad about it; it’s the kind of pseudo-poetry that could go on an $80 Brandy Melville tee (one size only). It’s not until the end that it gets dark, subtly, considering the jaunty guitars:
You say I should think before I talk
You say I shouldn’t think about my life
’Cause once I finally hit the ground
Who’s gonna drag me into the light?
It’s just so hard to see tomorrow past tonight
This was — or, dare I say, is — the charm of The Front Bottoms that roped in millions of teenage girls and made them feel like no other band would understand us like they did. The tragedy is hidden; it can’t be noticed at first glance. Maybe it can be given away by Brian Sella’s disarmingly scrappy vocals. He just sounds like a guy with a lot of feelings. In a way, he constantly sounds forlorn. But mostly this secretive sadness is in the layered lyricism. It’s more obvious on some songs, like the massive “Twin Size Mattress” or the nostalgic “Swear To God The Devil Made Me Do It” which culminates with the desperate confession that might serve as the f*cked-up thesis for The Front Bottoms: “But I am full of sh*t, I’m a plagiarist / As a liar, I’m a ten / I just want this to mean something to anyone / Even if they don’t know who I am / I am, I am, I am.”
Somehow, Talon Of The Hawk feels eternally juvenile, yet wise beyond its years and still afraid of growing up. Ephemeral moments are immortalized like movie scenes: falling asleep stoned in the front seat of a car on “Skeleton,” an abortion that costs specifically $437 on “Lone Star,” tension between the cool boyfriend and the friend-zoned guy at a traffic light that just won’t turn green on “Backflip.” On “Tattooed Tears,” a song about an ill-fated love, Sella is akin to a narrator in a Salinger novel: “I hear her whisper, ‘All I want is to want nothing’ / The room is dark and I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m asleep.”
It’s 2023 — ten years since the release of this emo classic. Today, the girl in front of me on the line for Dunkin’ in the New Jersey Turnpike rest stop was wearing a Front Bottoms shirt. I laughed to myself, instantly trusting her.
People — especially gatekeeper men — will tell you The Front Bottoms aren’t emo. That’s probably because there’s something about The Front Bottoms that feels feminine. On “Santa Monica,” an unexpected track from a band so blatantly from New Jersey, Sella repeats: “Emotional baby boy / Emotional man,” until admitting in a sigh: “I am emotional.” His sensitivity is vast, which is rare in emo; frontmen are usually only vulnerable when vengefully yelling about ex-girlfriends. Sella’s sorrows are deeper, more introspective, and self-aware. By the end of “Santa Monica,” he longs to be a good man in a world where those rarely exist: “I wanna be stronger / Than your dad was for your mom.” It’s not often that this side of masculinity is shown. We’re rooting for him.
On that same song, love is almost infinite: “I wish we were forever lying on the Santa Monica beach / Drinking Tecate 24oz underneath the stars / Being the superior couple, loving who I am cause what we are,” he sings, almost joyfully. Skeptically, he adds, “I wanna confess it in a whisper that’s just loud enough to make out,” like if he says his wish too loud it won’t come true.
The Front Bottoms surely bred some of the worst acts to ever exist — Hobo Johnson and McCafferty, to name a couple — because the unpolished, explicit nature of their music was misinterpreted by men who wanted to whine. Insincerely, Hobo Johnson in particular tries to imitate Sella’s conversational rambling by stumbling over his humiliating words in a clumsy rap. It’s a self-degradation ritual that misses the point of what makes The Front Bottoms work: Sella does not want pity. He knows he’s not entitled to anything. He’s just vaguely relatable. Even if what he’s describing doesn’t apply to your life, you feel like you’re there experiencing it with him, and there’s a level of understanding that arises and remains and never really goes away. He’s an observer, a collector of meaningful fragments of life like they’re prophecies in a fortune cookie.
There’s a reason for the persistence of their hit “Twin Size Mattress,” which will likely never stop existing as an anthem for depressed youth:
This is for the lions living in the wiry, broke-down frames
Of my friends’ bodies
When the flood water comes, it ain’t gonna be clear
It’s gonna look like mud
But I will help you swim, I will help you swim
I’m gonna help you swim
If not capturing the complications of love, The Front Bottoms are exploring the rough terrain of adolescent friendships. He recognizes and admires the strength his friends possess, but ultimately they’re held back by the same struggles as he is, and all they can do is help keep each other afloat. But sometimes it doesn’t work: “With tears in my eyes, I begged you to stay / You said, ‘Hey man, I love you, but no f*cking way!’” The line is their most well-known, embedded into the internet in gifs and lyric edits. It encapsulates their perfect melodrama.
The band has offered plenty of albums since, but songs from their self-titled debut and Talon Of The Hawk are the ones to primarily take over TikTok. One video with “Twin Size Mattress” in the background captures a fan dancing and passionately singing along to the song; text reads: “Forget gender, I just need to know which side of ‘Twin Size Mattress’ you relate to most.”
Instead of resenting or ignoring their early material like a lot of emo bands tend to, The Front Bottoms are celebrating this anniversary themselves with an anniversary tour where they’re playing through the record. They’re also unveiling a new album You Are Who You Hang Out With this summer, and the lead single has the intimate texture of Talon Of The Hawk. “Outlook” bursts with simultaneous victory and struggle; the final lyrics feel like a promise of eternal tumult, yet there’s a comfort in that consistency: “In my heart there’s a hole / And I fill it up with smoke / I got no control / Just get old / And I’ll watch it take its toll.”
The Front Bottoms are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.