Two and a half years ago, I saw a post for the release Farewell Fighter‘s The Way We Learn on AbsolutePunk.net and gave it a shot. I was immediately hooked, and that EP has held strong as my overall favorite release of the 2010s so far, remaining every bit as good as it was the first time I heard it. The announcement of the band’s signing to Easy Killer Records and plans to release a full-length came as welcomed news after more than a year without hearing new music and, instead, hearing rumors that the band had broken up. Challenges embodies that trying time span sonically and lyrically, carrying forward most of The Way We Learn and expanding it with six new songs. While fans of the band might be disappointed to find so much older material on “the debut full-length,” the record is a cohesive release that will both introduce new listeners to some of the group’s best work and give diehards something more substantive to spin. In terms of pop punk in 2013, if you aren’t listening to Farewell Fighter and Challenges, you aren’t listening to the best the genre has to offer. Plain and simple.
Maintaining “Well Wishing” and “Growing Pains” as the one-two opening punch was certainly a good call. The former serves as a brief introduction to the latter, giving a good feel for how well Kenny Fleetwood can write and deliver lines and demonstrating the type of instrumental space the band is able to create. Everything about the two sections of “Wishing Well” is spot-on, from the variances in approach to the tones to the way that the interlude at the end perfectly builds to set up “Growing Pains.” When that song takes off, it exemplifies the sort of energy Farewell Fighter brings, propelling the album forward in a way that channels the best pop punk acts without feeling stale. The different textures throughout the track are executed wonderfully, providing something interesting on each listen and preventing everything from blending together. The chorus and guitar solo soar, while parts where the drums are isolated keep everything grounded. Dynamic shifts and strong lyricism show off the band’s songwriting abilities, and these first two songs combine to make for one of the best beginnings of any record out so far this year.
“Fall” is the first truly new song on Challenges, and it easily lives up to the group’s standards. Group vocals over an interesting guitar part and that drum lead-in to the full-band section make the track feel huge, and the lead vocals are everything that makes Farewell Fighter great – emotional and smart lyrics combined with memorable melodies. These guys are experts at setting up each part for maximum effect, and this song is no exception. Every transition is special, and it’s impossible to not be drawn in every time the band shifts to a new section. The vocals are a little low in the mix toward the end of the chorus, but the masterfully written bridge more than makes up for any small concerns elsewhere in the track. “Grow” opens with a more reserved tone, cautious and thoughtful. An iteration of the chorus with that same feel showcases its wonderful melody, and then the band kicks everything up a notch. The danceable drums and pulsing bass in the verses keep everything upbeat and combine with the quick guitar part to provide a great bed for the vocals. The way that Fleetwood delivers some lines is reminiscent of Say Anything, but the sort of Say Anything that I’d actually want to listen to, channelling some of that tongue-in-cheek sexuality and wit and blending it with more serious sentiments. The interlude is not completely unlike that of “Golden,” and I’m not complaining about that in any way. Perhaps most importantly, every element of the production is on point; each instrument sounds fantastic, and the mix is great.
The intricate guitar and insistent vocals that open “Bridges” combine to make for one of the best moments on Challenges, as confessional lyricism begs for hard work to finally pay off. There’s a great drum fill that leads into the second verse, but that verse lacks the deliberate nature that drives so much of the band’s best material. It’s easy to see what the band was going for in terms of the tempo shift, but the section unfortunately falls a little flat. Luckily, the chorus is strong enough to redeem the track, and the bridge/instrumental combo works nicely as well. Another carryover (and semi-title track) from The Way We Learn, “Love Lust Or Losing It” is full of great guitar bits and has lyrics that border on the edge of desperation in the best way. The backing harmonies in the chorus add just the right element, and the lines “And the doctors say I’m ready, they swear I’ll be well soon. Will you see all my problems and raise me the truth?” in the bridge could be a slightly more positive take on The Academy Is…‘s “The Phrase That Pays.” The song worked really well on the EP, and it fits just as well on Challenges.
“The Bend” slows things down a bit, and it’s perhaps the most spacious track on the record. Lyrically, the song carries on the “cartridge” metaphor from previous material, building upon the idea of being positive and moving on, even when it feels like something’s missing. There’s the thought that even finding that missing thing wouldn’t be enough, and it’s countered by the hope of “if every road could take us home, nobody here would ever feel alone” and that “it’s not the things we have that makes us whole, it’s the things that we let go.” Sonically, the song flirts with the borders of intimacy and soaring anthemic atmospheres. I don’t think that this is one of the best songs to be found on Challenges, but it certainly has some of the best lyrics. “Never Have I Ever” builds on the dreams and desires from “Well Wishing” and expands them into a more complete track, taking a more assertive stance and declaring “I know it’s only an opinion, but I bet I could rule the world.” It’s not necessarily the strongest song from a lyrical standpoint, but it’s a ton of fun to listen to and has that mysterious extra element that makes it better to listen to than it sounds on paper. Of all the songs carried over from The Way We Learn, this is the one that could’ve been placed in a different (earlier) spot on the record.
Though “See” is the second-shortest song on Challenges, it packs a lot of goodness into just under two and a half minutes. The flowing, almost stammering nature of the verse is endlessly fun, while the lines “that four letter word, it’s acidic, it gets so pathetic how much of a crutch it becomes once we’ve said it” make for a fairly astute insight into the nature of the word “love” and how it can sometimes be used. The guitar solo fits in perfectly, and the line “if it’s all the same, I’ll need your opinions on some things” will get stuck in your head fairly easily. While it might not be the most substantial track on the record, it’s sure to be a hit live. “Epitaph,” on the other hand, is perhaps the biggest misstep to be found here. It has some great guitar and bass lines and glimmers of hope in the vocal and drum departments, but the added synths and strings and overall feel of the song don’t quite hit the mark. I’m normally all for strings, but they don’t quite work in this context. It’d be interesting to hear the band do some sort of alternate version of this track; as it stands, it lacks the hook, charm, and sincerity that drives most Farewell Fighter songs and is probably my least favorite thing they’ve released to date.
Closing out the record is a final pair of songs from The Way We Learn, the powerful “Where I Belong” and “Golden.” As the matching bookend to “Wishing Well” and “Growing Pains,” these are the two strongest tracks from the EP, and they’re just as great at the end of Challenges. The former is more upbeat and is full of great lyrics like “but even if I don’t decide to chase my dreams, I won’t throw them away, and even if it kills me tomorrow, it’s not that bad today.” The instrumental parts are nearly as catchy and infectious as the vocals, and the band executes the call-and-response between voice and guitar in the prechorus flawlessly. On top of that, the gang vocals repeating “let go, let go, don’t sweat the rain – life’s not that bad today” will replace whatever was stuck in your head from before. If you’re going to check out a single song from this record, start with this one, finish it, and forget that whole “one song” thing as “Golden” begins. The transition between these two tracks is one of my favorite sequencing choices ever, and it doesn’t hurt that these are among the best songs you’ll hear all year. Coming as a list of life lessons learned, the lyrics are immensely personal and insightful, emotional and universal. The vocals are fantastic throughout, and the changes in instrumental textures allow everything to come through to maximize effect. Kids telling their dreams are woven throughout the interlude, echoing Fleetwood’s own on “Wishing Well” and “Never Have I Ever” and truly tying everything together. The album closes on a repeated refrain of “Golden, we are golden because we’re alive. We are nothing without our goodbyes. Luminate our own way from inside. We shine so bright, we shine so,” and the way that the final section builds and fades away gives the album a really organic feel. There’s a sincerity to be found in this song, and it transcends the vast majority of what others have done in the genre. Too good.
Despite my undying love for The Way We Learn, I can’t honestly say that I was excited to find out that 6/7 of that EP (all but “Terminal”) would make up half of Challenges. If you include “Grow,” which saw its release back in February, previously-heard material makes up the majority of this record. I understand the desire to have more people hear the older songs; I want everyone to hear those songs, too. The thing is, there was already an avenue for that to happen, and this album didn’t have to be another one. Challenges could’ve easily been a 6-track EP and, for longtime fans of the band, the new songs would’ve benefited from that format. As it stands, I’m less likely to listen to this record simply because it’s a little awkward for me to start with “Wishing Well” and “Growing Pains” and not have it flow directly into “Never Have I Ever.” This isn’t a problem that new listeners will have when listening to Challenges, but it’s my main gripe with the album. Tampering with a 10 will rarely result in something that meets the same level again. Despite this complaint, the album, on its own, is very strong. The songwriting quality has remained high, and there are few missteps to be found here. Farewell Fighter has yet to release a song that I dislike, and the ones I don’t love can be counted on less than one hand. The band’s brand of sincere pop punk has that it factor that elevates a fairly straightforward sound into something more. There’s nothing more I can say to explain what that means; just listen. You can thank me later.