Fireworks - Oh, Common Life
Release Date: March 25, 2014
Record Label: Triple Crown
On Fireworks’ 2011 sophomore effort, Gospel, vocalist Dave Mackinder sings on the album’s first single: “I’m not counting the grays on my head / I’m calling them silver linings instead.” The line, taken from “Summer,” is a fairly simple commentary on aging and growing wiser, excerpted from an album that was focused around a central theme of strained personal relationships - an all-too-common result of lives spent in touring vans.
This intersection of personal and professional lives, coupled with the stress of never being home, weighed on the Michigan quintet and resulted in some much-needed time off. Three years later, we come across Fireworks again with a third LP: Oh, Common Life.
Interestingly, much of the narrative following the band is the same. Fireworks took time off, and they presumably grew up even more. They probably got more mature too, right? Such things are known to happen with the passing of time. Personal relationships were (or weren’t) patched up, but life never stops throwing daggers - if you thought Fireworks were getting older and wiser on Gospel, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Oh, Common Life is a change of scenery, providing a different backdrop for the intimate lyricism delivered by Mackinder - this time, it’s more somber. It’s sadder on the whole, as themes are generally bleak (“‘Life’s fleeting,’ they say / I’m just depressing these days / Got me acting like a sprinkler in the rain” from “The Only Thing That Haunts This House Is Me” sheds the album’s vibe in a fair light). Specific topics range from the death of a family member - there is a lot about Mackinder’s father passing away - to how one’s own sadness is perceived by others. Ultimately, Oh, Common Life is an extreme look within oneself, as references to the outside world are all but gone (a similar lyrical leap to the one we saw The Wonder Years make recently).
Guitar-driven melodies with insistent drumwork still furnish this group’s backbone from a sonic perspective. There’s another step forward in the musicianship, as the soul, funk and minor hints of folk/shoegaze that you heard on Gospel continue to come out of the woodwork. The Beach Boys are represented amongst the influences here, but so are Weezer and Fountains of Wayne. Oh, Common Life is probably best filed under the catch-all genre of “alternative rock,” but I can’t think of a thing I care about less than fitting this square peg of a band into a round hole of a genre.
What I do care about is the way that Fireworks are transposing emotion more successfully than ever before. There’s a chance this album won’t catch on amongst the Tumblr-centric pop-punk demographic that embraced Gospel, and that’s because it’s missing the arms-around-yr-buds sing-along songs like “The Wild Bunch” and “Summer.” In fact, the forbidden beat is a rarity on Oh, Common Life. But this makes way for mid-track tempo changes, precise guitar work, a fantastic effort from the rhythm section and an entire barrage of raw, poignant lyricism that will find its way into late-night listening sessions in your bedroom more often than your typical windows-down car rides.
There are lines here that will crush you. Mackinder sings “I keep your things in my garage” on the ebbing “Run Brother Run.” On “Woods,” he delivers: “When I was young, death chewed me up / And I was swallowed by a world that I don’t feel a part of anymore” before hitting you with, “You're the reason I'm not close to anybody / I really think you were that somebody.” Back on “The Only Thing That Haunts This House Is Me,” you stumble upon the gem of, “I use metaphors to write about what I really should just say out loud / I wish I could piss on a strip to see what’s really going on inside of me.”
In summation: Notable lyrical moments on Oh, Common Life are bountiful. The puzzle is pieced together when the band is at its most fluid, like on “Flies on Tape,” which is the catchiest song on Oh, Common Life, as well as (I think) the first time a Fireworks tune has incorporated a synthesizer. “Bed Sores” is another catchy one, but its bouncy feel can be decieving: “These houses are headstones / These basements, they are graves.” They hit the nail on the head during “Play God Only Knows At My Funeral,” which pairs a toe-tapping melody and fast pace with the shout-along chorus of, “I'm half the man my father knows I should be.”
Fireworks wrestled with a style that was already setting it apart from the pack and twisted it into something exclusively its own. The lyrics here weren’t written by a man who was simply hurting, but smart enough to understand where his hurt belongs in the grand scheme of things. Fireworks knows something we don’t, and they’re sharing it with us under the guise of a coming-of-age story. Oh, Common Life offers up more layers than any past Fireworks release to dig through, but it does so in a way that can be gratifying at face value as well. It’s a record that gives a little at first, but can continue giving.
It may not have Gospel’s immediate infectiousness; it may not attain the revered status that Gospel was bestowed by critics and fans; it may not even be better than Gospel. I really don’t know yet, because the seasons have changed nearly a dozen times since I first heard Gospel, and that was a record that chipped away at me until it found where it belonged. Whether Oh, Common Life is an album of similar magnitude and lasting value remains to be seen, but I’m not in a huge rush to choose which effort is more impressive. I’m content to take Oh, Common Life with me for the ride, peeling back more layers and discovering more nuances along the way.
Great review. I know the score it's not that important, but I would've given it at least a 9. I also felt like this was the same kind of progression that The Greatest Generation had from Suburbia. I'm really loving this record and it's still growing on me every time I listen to it.
Great review. I think I would have given it a 9 as well, but that hardly matters.
The one thing I disagree with you on is the one-liners. I think Gospel had countless lines that were clearly designed to be one-liners and sometimes fit awkwardly in the grand scheme of the song. I feel like the lyricism here is was more focused on the whole product.
I love that they took a different direction from Gospel, because that would have been a tough record to top. I'm loving this one more and more with each listen, just like I did with Gospel, and that's exciting. I can't wait to see how it holds up throughout the year.
Fantastic review, Thomas. I've only spun it a few times thus far, but I'm immediately finding to be a very good record. Lots of depth to it, not as instantly accessible as Gospel or even All I Have to Offer, but I have a feeling this might be their best record yet. Time will tell. Really excited to hear the new songs live next month.