By Ben Sailer
It’s often tough to discern what exactly makes certain records stand out in a band’s discography. Sometimes it’s a matter of an album being released at just the right time for a certain generation of kids. Other times an album takes a clear creative leap over everything before it (and maybe even overshadows everything that comes next). The Get Up Kids seminal sophomore full-length Something to Write Home About checks both boxes; it’s the more polished follow-up to the revered 1997 emo classic Four Minute Mile, and the forerunner to one of the genre’s most divisive releases in 2001’s alt-country influenced On a Wire.
Something to Write Home About is difficult to discuss on its own merits because so much of its importance is tied up in the context surrounding it. While its predecessor also achieved critical acclaim when major labels were buying lottery tickets on upcoming emo bands, this is arguably the record that’s had a more enduring legacy (carried by a pair of hits in “Ten Minutes” and “I’m a Loner Dottie, a Rebel”). Even if you’d pick Four Minute Mile as the best record in their catalog (which would be fair enough, as a vocal contingent of fans do), this was the one that turned the fortunes for an entire label and cast a shadow over everything the band would do for 20 years.
Following up Four Minute Mile was never going to be an easy task, but if the band felt pressure to deliver, it doesn’t show. Producer Chad Blinman brought out their best behind the boards, cleaning up their sound without totally filing off the rough edges. Carried by a pair of fan-favorite bangers between “Ten Minutes” and “I’m a Loner Dottie, a Rebel,” the record demonstrated more polish and nuance than their debut as the band grew into themselves as songwriters.
That isn’t to say Something to Write Home About is all filler between singles though. The record makes an immediate statement starting with the introductory pick scrapes on “Holiday,” an anthemic album opener that kicks off with fist-pumping energy while capturing the sense of separation that anyone going from high school into “the real world” could relate to, with vocalist and guitarist Matt Pryor exhorting, “What became of everyone I used to know? / Where did our respectable convictions go?” Not exactly the deepest sentiment ever expressed, but late 90’s records have made worse opening statements.
Its follow-up tracks “Action and Action” and “Valentine” steadily ratchet down the intensity, settling into mid-tempo grooves and a more contemplative tone. The band then kicks things back into high gear with “Ten Minutes,” opening with an iconic drum pattern and featuring chorus hooks that would later become hallmarks for the band. The slow burn of closer “I’ll Catch You” is at turns triumphant and reflective, carrying the album to its conclusion with the heartfelt exhortation “You’re still all that matters to me.” It caps off the record on a hopeful yet somber note, evincing the sort of togetherness that has made it engagement soundtrack material.
The Get Up Kids had started drawing major label attention while writing Something to Write Home About, and it’s little wonder why; the band was coming off an album as successful as Doghouse Records (or any other indie) could have hoped for at the time, and they could have easily ridden the early 2000’s emo boom into stardom. Instead, they became a breakout band for larger independent Vagrant Records, selling over 100,000 copies and enabling the label to sign other influential acts like Saves The Day, Alkaline Trio, and Dashboard Confessional.
Even with emo on the cusp of breaking out of the basement and into the mainstream, The Get Up Kids would never quite achieve the commercial heights of Jimmy Eat World, nor the broader cultural cachet of Sunny Day Real Estate. Yet As a coming-of-age record written by earnest Midwestern kids entering their late teens and early 20s, Something to Write Home About was released under a perfect confluence of circumstances to connect with a generation who’d hold the record close to their hearts alongside Clarity and Diary.
If placing this record near other genre cornerstones feels like a stretch, consider the fact that none other than Blink 182’s Mark Hoppus proposed to his wife with closing track “I’ll Catch You.” Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz also cites the band as a major influence (much to the band’s own ire and confusion). Whether The Get Up Kids knew it or not (or even wanted it or not), they had cemented their status as an emo cornerstone; even if they were never the biggest band in the genre themselves, their impact would be felt far and wide through those they inspired.
With two successful records under their belts and a red-hot market for poppy emo-influenced guitar rock, it’s a wonder what could have been had The Get Up Kids leaned into a major label deal. It’s a question that’ll never be answered, because instead of putting out Something to Write Home About Part II, they went in a more grown-up alt-country tinged direction with 2001’s On a Wire. The record was almost universally panned by fans and critics at the time, but in retrospect, feels like it may have been a necessary growing pain for a band still just entering their early 20s. Instead of launching the band into superstardom, it instead sent them toward a future of sonic experimentation (from 2004’s straight-ahead Guilt Show, to 2011’s electronic-tinged There Are Rules, to the all-encompassing sounds of 2018’s Problems) and mixed critical reception.
While the band’s post-On a Wire output has never been widely dismissed outright, few would argue the band’s fanbase hasn’t been sustained largely based on their early work. Paradoxically, Something to Write Home About blacked out the sun for everything that came next (this Hard Times article isn’t far from the truth) while also making subsequent records possible by cementing the band’s legacy as an emo cornerstone. By keeping people interested in their band, there’s always an audience for more tours and new music, even if everyone wants to hear the hits.
Indeed, that a record full of songs about coming of age could still feel relevant 20 years after its release is remarkable. Their peers have only a handful of releases between them from the same period that can claim that kind of longevity, and to find any records from that era that are more iconic, you have to start talking about major mainstream breakout acts like the aforementioned Jimmy Eat World (or a few years later, Taking Back Sunday). Something to Write Home About catapulted the band just far enough into the mainstream to build a large and devoted following, but not far enough to dominate MTV or rock radio. And in terms of balancing longevity and creative freedom, maybe that hasn’t been such a bad place to be.