It Holds Up: The World Is… – ‘Whenever, If Ever’

Posted: by The Editor

I started high school ten years ago last September. Last September is also when I found myself back there, walking the same halls, nodding off in the same classrooms–this time as a teacher. It’s a strange feeling, returning to the school you went to in a different context. The place is the same, and many of the teachers I had are still there, but it feels new. I don’t, of course. I feel like the same person I was ten years ago, still as scared, confused, awkward.

I find myself returning to the music I listened to those days, the pop-punk and emo that, for worse, shaped my taste. A lot of it doesn’t work for me anymore. I remember the feelings I used to get when I listened to those records, the way the words felt like they were written for me, but I don’t get those feelings anymore. Sometimes I can’t make it past the first song. When I listen to Whenever, If Ever, though, it sounds even better now somehow.

I didn’t get The World Is at first. I saw the praise they were getting from every corner of the internet, emo fans or not. I couldn’t tell you how many times I listened to Whenever, If Ever, hoping it’d click. It didn’t. I listened to Formlessness and Are Here to Help You and even Josh Is Dead. I wanted to feel the magic everyone else felt. I didn’t. It was a number of factors. It’s a weird album, honestly. There’s nothing else in the genre that sounds like it, and, hell, nothing the band’s done since sounds like this (though they’re still great). And it’s messy; songs have three or four different vocalists shouting over each other at once over a breakdown or a synth line or both. Part of it, I think, was also the way that people talked about the band. People talked about them the way you talk about God, hushed tones and hyperbole. So I kept trying. Eventually parts of it would lodge themselves in my head: the devastating first line of “Gig Life,” the crunchy riff that opens “Fightboat,” the grandiose two-minute swell of “Ultimate Steve,” the interrogative chorus of “Picture of a Tree That Doesn’t Look Okay” (really, where do the echoes from the echoes go?), and I’d be compelled to return. At some point it all just fell into place. Those qualities that made Whenever, If Ever a challenge at first became the reasons I’d reach for it. There’s an urgency, a spontaneity, a sincerity to the whole thing that’s impossible to deny. “This has got to work out,” goes the last line of “Fightboat,” and they spend every minute fighting like hell to make sure it does. And it did.

Whenever, If Ever wasn’t the first album to revive the sounds of ’90s emo, but it was the first Emo RevivalTM album. With the release of Whenever, If Ever, people began to take the genre–the movement, really–seriously. Part of it was the album’s sprawling experimentalism–there’s a reason people compared Whenever, If Ever more readily to Funeral or You Forgot It in People than to something like American Football. Genre-fluidity isn’t really anything new in emo; it’s pretty standard for emo albums to have a pop-punk song, a post-hardcore song, a math song, a post-rock song (usually the closer). What’s novel about Whenever, If Ever is the way that The World Is integrated all of these elements into the same song; after the ambient intro track “Blank #9,” the six-ish-minute “Heartbeat in the Brain” combines all of these elements into one song, immediately letting the listener know what they’re in for. The same is true for the Godspeed You! Black empire! empire! closer “Getting Sodas” and lead single “Picture of a Tree That Doesn’t Look Okay,” which begins as a slowcore dirge before picking up speed like a boulder rolling down a hill into an emo-pop shoutalong, each of the band’s numerous vocalists vying for the mic at once.

Even more impressive is when they pack these disparate elements into the shorter songs; half the tracks on Whenever, If Ever don’t even hit the three-minute mark, and they’re still full of twists and turns. “Fightboat” blends trumpet with angular post-hardcore riffs and segues into a synth-pop call-and-response bridge; “You Will Never Go to Space” evokes, uh, space rock and post-rock before collapsing into a pop-punk song and leading directly into the 90-second emo-meets-sludge banger “Layers of Skin We Drag Around.” There was no one else doing this before The World Is…, and there’s still no one doing it now–there was no precedent for this sort of experimentation in emo, a genre that, certainly in the ’90s and arguably until the advent of its fifth wave, has always been pretty sonically conservative. The closest comparison would be Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity, the high water mark for the ’90s scene, for its forays into slowcore, electronica, powerpop, post-hardcore, post-rock, and drone, its embrace of strings, drum machines, keys, studio wizardry. In time Whenever, If Ever has developed a reputation not unlike Clarity‘s: it’s a record with something for everyone, a record big enough to encompass whatever you’re feeling, a record empathetic enough to remind you that there’s somewhere you belong.

That sense of belong is another major part of what makes Whenever, If Ever the record it is. Songs are loaded with references to friends: “if we run and hit a hurdle / then we’ll just deer leap over,” “is there a way to get into it? / Or do I have to get over it? / Did we dream when we were skeletons?,” “let it destroy me / let it end all suffering,” “it’s just Rival Schools / and mewithoutYou on our car rides,” “your tape still plays ‘This Changes Everything.'” The inversion of the band’s name at the end of “Getting Sodas” fits, too–and these aren’t just winks to friends or influences. Whenever, If Ever is, at its base, a record about community, about belonging; the very first line of the record reads, “whenever you find home / if everyone belongs there,” because it isn’t home if it isn’t for everyone. These shoutouts speak to the band’s ethos: we’re all a part of something together. That recognition that we’re all in it together, that “we are all the same,” as the band intones as one on “Low Light Assembly,” is the driving force behind The World Is. That’s a world we can have, they say. But we’ve got to make it that way.


Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison

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