“I am what I am / Just not what I was.”
Oh, Common Life, Fireworks’ third full-length, is filled to the brim with memorable lines. Frontman Dave Mackinder’s somber musings on life and loss cut deep and give the record a weight that pushes it to the unimaginable heights it reaches. But amid all that, this line from “The Sound of Young America” most strongly encapsulates the essence of Oh, Common Life. As the follow-up to 2011’s critic and fan-adored Gospel, Oh, Common Life is doomed to be compared to it. But that isn’t fair in the slightest. Fireworks have grown. They have evolved. And the end result is a record that eclipses your preconceived expectations of them.
The immediate standout upon listening to Oh, Common Life is how much Mackinder has grown in terms of lyrics and delivery. He has always been a step ahead of other frontmen in the genre on the virtue of talent alone, but it is on this record that we really are given a glimpse into the full power of what he brings to the table. He can expertly deliver a shimmering pop melody without losing the touch of grit that he brings. “Flies on Tape” and “Bed Sores” are telling examples of his expertise in providing an enticing vocal hook, but the bright, melodic nature of the songs shouldn’t overshadow the lyrical content itself. Oh, Common Life is a dark, introspective trip through Mackinder’s personal thoughts. Amid the bounciness of the aforementioned “Bed Sores” is the refrain of “I keep telling myself/ That everyone’s hell is better than my own/ And my hell is my own” while “Play ‘God Only Knows’ At My Funeral”, a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on the band’s previous efforts, hits the listener with “You saved lives/ While I just ruined mine/ I used to/ You know I used to try.” Throughout the course of the album, Mackinder delivers crushing line after crushing line, never relenting, but never dwelling on his despair that is put on display. He always maintains an acute awareness of his problems and their effect on those who surround him. His poignant messages are the backbone of what makes Oh, Common Life the illustrious album that it is.
Musically, this record is even more of a growth and departure from Fireworks’ past discography. Fireworks have always been grouped with the wave of pop punk bands that they are associated with, but sonically they have virtually shed that sound in place of something so much bigger. You could hear the maturation on Gospel, but on Oh, Common Life, Fireworks have reached their peak musically. The double time drum beats and chant-along vocals have essentially disappeared here, giving way to more lively guitar work, while the rhythm section delivers an unrelenting performance track after track. The record as a whole showcases the band at their most dynamic, with each track presenting a different blend of influences. Opener “Glowing Crosses” and high-point “Play ‘God Only Knows’ At My Funeral” are most reminiscent of the band’s past work, but with a fresh twist. The former plays off an aggressive riff throughout and the latter is one of the most upbeat tracks on the record. They delve into high-energy power pop on “Flies on Tape”, the catchiest of the bunch thanks to the addition of a glowing synth line, and “Bed Sores”, ripe with mid-song tempo changes and glimmering piano in the background.
The biggest standouts, however, are the more forceful mid-tempo songs, which find Fireworks at their strongest. “One More Creature Dizzy With Love” is an absolutely heartbreaking song, not just due to the lyrics, but the overall aura that the instrumentals create invokes a whirlwind of emotions. “Run Brother Run” is the highlight of the album, subtle and understated in its power, allowing Mackinder’s vocals and lyrics to paint a story for the listener, propelled along by the punishing drumming of Tymm Rengers and accentuated by a howling guitar line that separates the song from anything else on the record. Fireworks really find their stride in these more dynamic, challenging efforts, and they give the album a more cohesive and collected feel, ebbing and flowing with energy but never yielding on the emotion.
There is a strong chance that Oh, Common Life will not catch on with fans as well as their beloved Gospel. The two records are destined to be compared, but couldn’t be more different. Oh, Common Life doesn’t immediately jump out and grab you the way Gospel does. It is a more complex album and requires a much deeper dive to fully appreciate what exactly it brings to the table, but if/when it clicks, you will be completely engrossed by its beauty. Whether it is better or worse than Gospel is unimportant. It is what it is. And it is a great album.