a look back on Saves The Day’s ‘Through Being Cool’ for its 20th anniversary
1999 was possibly the biggest and most pivotal year for pop punk. '94 may have kicked the doors open for the genre's place in the mainstream with Dookie and Smash, but '99 is when it exploded in an inconceivably massive way thanks to Enema of the State. After that, the genre flooded MTV and the radio for about the next half-decade and its impact is still felt today. '99 was also the year that a soon-to-be-huge band called A New Found Glory released their debut album Nothing Gold Can Stay, and on a smaller level, that year brought milestone albums like Something To Write Home About (The Get Up Kids), Clarity (from the pop punk-adjacent Jimmy Eat World, who would go on to have huge post-blink-182 success with 2001's Bleed American), and Through Being Cool, the sophomore album from the young NJ band Saves The Day.
Saves The Day made their greatest artistic achievements soon after Through Being Cool, but that remains the Saves The Day album that is most likely to always be considered their classic. They toured it for its 15th anniversary, at which point core member/frontman Chris Conley called it "the most important record that we did," and now they're playing it in full again for its 20th anniversary. (The shows will be opened by fellow emo vets Hot Rod Circuit, who will be performing their 2002 classic Sorry About Tomorrow.) It was not just a pivotal album in the development of pop punk (and emo); it was a pivotal album in Saves The Day's career too.
Before Saves The Day and their peers got big on a national level, subgenres were less clearly defined and a lot of times bands just got lumped together because they lived in the same area and played in the same basements and VFW halls. Saves The Day might be best known as a pop punk/emo band now, but they were regularly playing shows with hardcore bands when they were on the rise, and they signed to Equal Vision back when it was still a hardcore label. (And Saves The Day have still got that hardcore cred, as their recent headlining slot at This Is Hardcore 2019 helped prove.) The year before Through Being Cool came out, when Chris Conley was just 18 years old, Saves The Day released their debut album Can't Slow Down (on Equal Vision). It was a modest debut that could at least be called melodic hardcore, with musical roots that could be traced back to classic NYHC bands like Gorilla Biscuits but which was even more directly influenced by fellow Jersey band Lifetime, whose producer Steve Evetts was tapped to helm Can't Slow Down (and, eventually, Through Being Cool). Lifetime had already helped make it okay to add a little melody to your hardcore, and then Saves The Day came along and took it one step further. They were still finding their footing on Can't Slow Down, but they perfected the formula on Through Being Cool. Rhythmically, Through Being Cool was still very much a hardcore album at times -- its chugging guitars and double-time drums weren't that different from the other bands on Equal Vision in the '90s -- but their bright, major-key melodies and catchy yelped vocals showed a love and understanding of pop music that went far beyond hardcore. As Saves The Day's career went on -- and the members grew out of their teenage years -- their love and understanding of pop music would quickly grow. For Through Being Cool's 2001 followup Stay What You Are, Chris Conley learned to really sing, Saves The Day got in the studio with Elliott Smith producer Rob Schnapf, and they came out with slower, cleaner, more atmospheric songs that still had one foot in pop punk and emo but entirely transcended the genre. For that album's followup and Saves The Day's major label debut, In Reverie, Chris went down a Beatles rabbithole, developed an interest in complex chord structures, learned to sing falsetto, and wrote a beautiful, sparkling guitar pop record that confused lots of fans, the radio, MTV, and -- like a week or so after its release -- got Saves The Day quickly dropped from their major. The initially-divisive album went on to become a cult classic... but I'm getting ahead of myself. Before Saves The Day did any of that, they released Through Being Cool, which saw them starting to outgrow the hardcore scene that birthed them but was still 100% a punk record. It's the album that allowed Saves The Day to start making all the unconventional choices they would make throughout their career, and it influenced hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of kids to start their own bands.
If you've never heard Through Being Cool before, it might not be immediately clear from a first listen in 2019 why it's so important. If it sounds a little too regular, it's because its influence became so widespread. If the lyrics sound a little juvenile, it's because Chris had literally just graduated high school when he wrote them. If high school is very far in your rear view, this album may not be for you -- though Stay What You Are and In Reverie might be. It's not Saves The Day's best record (that would be Stay What You Are, which straddles the perfect middle ground between where they started and where they ended up), but it does remain the most classic, the most important, and probably still the most influential. It's tough to rip off Stay What You Are and In Reverie, but Through Being Cool is still the kind of an album that tons of awkward, lovelorn, suburban kids tried to imitate. And the reason that it has remained influential for all these years is because -- despite countless imitations -- it retains a charm that many of Saves The Day's peers and followers never had. Even before Chris realized "Eleanor Rigby" could be a folk punk song, he knew his way around a hook. Through Being Cool is just packed with hook after hook after hook. There isn't a song on the album that wouldn't fit on a best-of compilation. Through Being Cool songs don't wait for the chorus to hook you in; they give you a quick badass guitar intro, and then Chris hits you with an earworm right off the bat. By the time the song does get to the chorus, he just ups the ante with something even catchier. And even before Chris discovered the full range of his voice, he had a certain inflection and a way with a "whoa!" or a "hey!" that was able to tug at your heartstrings, and get you raising your fist at the same time. And though the album's sometimes-violent depictions of getting revenge on an ex-girlfriend (or, in the case of the title track, on a male friend) don't hold up very well today, Through Being Cool often had a certain kind of teenage punk poetry that really resonated with a lot of people. The album was just as good at casually describing a joyride with your friends and listening to Queen as it was at depicting heartbreak with vivid imagery and metaphor. Down to its album cover, Through Being Cool was a snapshot of teenage life in suburban New Jersey (even though it was written after Chris split for the big city to attend NYU). It's flawed, like being a teenager always is, but at least it's honest. And I think that's why it touched so many people. On Through Being Cool, Saves The Day really did feel like the geeky guys sitting on the couch at the high school party. Owning your geekiness and coming-of-age stories were all the rage in the '90s, and Saves The Day got in just before the decade ended with a ‘90s coming-of-age classic that you could throw on in the car with your friends and just rock out to.
Through Being Cool turns 20 on November 2 (the day the tour begins), and its expanded 20th anniversary reissue is out today, with a second disc of demos and live sessions. You can pick up a copy on tie-dye vinyl, turquoise cassette or CD here, and you can stream the whole thing below.
For more on Through Being Cool, read Chris Conley discussing six songs that influenced the album.