After bursting out of Wormtown with 2007’s Rise or Die Trying — an energetic attempt to channel Less Than Jake through Cork Tree-era Fall Out Boy with occasional screams and synth (I mean every word of that description) — Four Year Strong struck a Drop D chord with their much more focused sophomore album, Enemy of the World. Maybe they have Scott Heisel’s vicious burns to thank for verbalizing the association, but regardless, a burst of inertia carried them and a micro-scene of other like-minded groups (Set Your Goals, A Day to Remember, etc) into prominence. Each used a framework of beefy-sounding rhythmic breakdowns paired with soaring melodies to give them an aesthetic just one step more aggressive than many of their peers’ yearning self-involvement. Albums like Enemy of the World simultaneously borrowed the defiance of hardcore and the adolescent vigor of pop-punk to create a sound that was immediately engaging but could be a little off-putting in large doses. More recently with 2011’s solid yet forgettable In Some, Way Shape or Form, Four Year Strong added to an easy-to-like-hard-to-love catalog that was subtly marred by an undertone of novelty.
Even on sight, Four Year Strong harkens back to the glory of the sophomore album that put them on the map. The cover of In Some Way, Shape or Form is a calculated and organized overhead shot that looked like a “What’s In Your Bag” photo, and the album mimicked the artwork by trying to bring order to the band’s previously unpredictable stylistic exercises. Four Year Strong’s cover is a psychedelic illustration reminiscent of the absurdity of Enemy of the World’s animated depiction of the band as centaurs, army men and hairy tinkerbells, and it (implicitly) indicates a shedding of the tightly-wound self-awareness that held Form back. From the chunky, syncopated intro of “I Hold Myself In Contempt” into the caterwauled verses of “We All Float Down Here” it is immediately evident that Four Year Strong have stopped consciously trying to progress and just let their muse take the lead.
A sidenote: I have often used the word novelty when discussing Four Year Strong because their music doesn’t seek to resonate with staying power. First off, it grabs at the shallowest senses with heavy use of dynamics. What’s more, it dates itself with referential song-titles and seems to use a plug and play mentality to build familiarity within songs. Little context is needed to understand what is going on, and because of that, it’s natural to put no deep thought into what point the music is trying to make.
Yet, more time spent with Four Year Strong has led me to reconsider whether that’s a fair assessment. Despite their brief, ho-hum attempt to calm down and make their last full length into a focused rock album, the band’s return to a full-fledged style that they helped to create is actually kind of triumphant. There isn’t really much question at this point that they are the best at what they do, and songs like “Eating My Words” and “I’m A Big, Bright, Shining Star” are objectively good songs thanks to the canon that now reinforces their place in modern alternative music. Four Year Strong won’t approach the intellectual, cultural impact that albums like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, The Shape of Punk to Come, or even On the Impossible Past strive for, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this vein of hardcore/pop-punk/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is expendable when it’s done right.
I try not to give people advice about what music to listen to — I think people’s preferences are just too multifaceted to predict objectively. That being said, I recommend giving this album a casual listen, even if you don’t ever tread near this style of music. If it grabs your attention, try a few more spins. Despite the cheeky, overt methods that it uses, Four Year Strong plays to commonly sought emotions. It channels excitement, pride and momentum without too much pretense, and the lingering joy of that job well-done is worth a bit of your attention, even it’s just through your car stereo for the summer.