Pop punk to me was, and still is, a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, pop punk songs are usually very musically sound, cleverly constructed, colourful and fun, even though they explore very real and relatable issues, often telling stories of teenage awkwardness, unrequited love, or toxic relationships. Yet, at the same time, the genre as a whole feels a little naïve, innocently unaware of its mockable whininess, lyrics that just don’t sound quite right coming from now-40-year-olds live, and predictable use of musical clichés. I love a little bit at a time, when I need an intense, sugary reminder of all the toils and tribulations of teenagerhood, and I won’t deny that I’ll gladly sing along, even if the lyrics are trying just a little too hard to be poetic. I missed the boat on it, though, and so I have no deeply rooted emotional connection to the genre – having been in high school in the 2010s, I am probably just that little bit too young.
Now I’m trudging through my mid-20s, dragging my high school days behind me as if they’ll somehow garner me sympathy, as if my haunted past makes me special, interesting; as if everyone else in my generation isn’t weighed down, strengthened, or at the very least shaped in some way by similar kinds of trauma (and many by trauma much worse than mine). I didn’t like high school, and I didn’t like who I was until I was about 17 and started, finally, to stop apologising for being myself. Funny how much I see myself in pop punk now, when it passed right by me at the time when it would’ve been its most relevant.
The thing about Arm’s Length’s Never Before Seen, Never Again Found is that it does seem very rooted in the past, but a past that is not edgy or angsty but instead shrouded in a nostalgic haze – a warm, golden time, despite all the heartbreak, despite the complexities. I was forcibly reminded of smelling a certain aroma, and, for a heartbeat, being transported back to my strongest memory of it. This sense of déjà vu prevails throughout the album, which is ironic, considering its title. But perhaps that’s part of it, too – the human memory is a very interesting character, after all. I recently read a book that very much revolved around the burying of childhood trauma, and also concerned the mind’s fickleness when it comes to memories; the fact that memory can be manipulated, that even as adults, people can be made to remember things that never even happened. Never Before Seen feels deeply intimate and reflective, an emotional analysis of days gone by, and yet, its name implies that perhaps, none of the things it talks about ever happened.
From the opening track “Overture”, it’s clear that this album will be a bit of a walk down memory lane. The round, gentle guitar arpeggios and restrained strings form a lush bed for the tenderly harmonised vocals, before the track explodes into huge expansiveness. I was reminded of lush, summery fields as the sun sets, running through tall grass, trying to catch the dying rays of light. Even the opening line ‘I’m breaking bones and you’re signing my cast’ has a taste of Chupa Chups innocence, bittersweet juxtaposition of being injured turning into an opportunity to be seen as special, for forming deeper connections.
“Object Permanence” is, musically, a highlight for me – it hits in all the right places, highly rhythmic, with the right amount of melody and harmonic movement. The mixture of introspective sung phrases and semi-harsh vocal outbursts lends itself to the feeling of prepubescent angst. The song is over without any fuss, almost too soon, but keeping it beautifully, tantalisingly short. The lyrics skirt the cliché, missing it by a hair through their specificity, and I like that. In general, the lyricism on this album is very straightforward, but never plain. Why go all Meshuggah on it and use big words to describe normal, relatable human experiences when simple, cleverly arranged sentences will hit much harder?
The anthemic, epic “Formative Age” is one of the best examples of this – its subject matter is really quite heavy despite its bouncy rhythms and passionately delivered vocals. The first time, it caught me off guard. I struggle with depression, and was just coming out of a particularly dark phase, so the lines ‘I’m not concerned that you’d kill for me/But you don’t even live for me/I beg you to get out of bed’ hit me to my core. I thought of my wonderful partner, who’s there through all of my bleak episodes, and my parents, who, completely unprepared for what was happening, tried their best to support me when I first fell into depression in my early teens. Before I knew it, I was crying silently, wishing I had the strength to appreciate all the amazing things in my life, rather than expending energy trying to justify why I didn’t deserve them. ‘Don’t let me know you got home/Man, I wanna feel more alone’ – fuck, I’ve been there, and I hate that place. Arm’s Length drive home this complex cocktail of sadness, guilt, and overwhelming love with “Muscle Memory”, a sweet, solemn, affectionate number, of which the main line is ‘If you had the time, I wish you’d live forever’ – it’s so loving and simple, and yet it felt like another stab at my already screaming, blackened heart.
Despite the title, “In Loving Memory” is one of the most cheerful songs on the album. It’s got a childish sense of innocent wit, and is host to one of my favourite lines: ‘Well, am I smart/Or just thinking really hard?’. It’s such a delightfully self-aware line that isn’t aware of its own self-awareness, the way kids tend to be. I just think there’s something beautiful about the simplicity of this particular track; it’s sunny and optimistic, while still being pensive. The ending half-time breakdown with its blooming synths and hazy guitar pads just adds to this whole vibe.
This review took me a long time to write, mainly because of work commitments, but also because almost every time I sat down to write it, soon after, something would happen that made it more relevant. For example, on the first listen, I thought the line ‘You look just like your father/But your voice carries farther’ from “Dirge” was just a nice lyric, but soon after, I attended a friend’s father’s funeral, whom I never met, but who from all accounts sounds like he was a more intense version of my friend. My friend, in his eulogy, even described himself as an echo of his father, which stuck with me, and seems tied to that particular line. I needed to ponder Never Before Seen in all its detail and relevance before I felt ready to write it the review it deserves.
Don’t be disheartened if Never Before Seen, Never Again Found doesn’t resonate with you immediately – initially, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed for no reason other than that it was less riffy than I’d anticipated. By my third listen, I was seriously digging every single track. It’s a really sincere, relatable album, that shines through its lack of frilliness and its ability to hit straight to the point, without being plain or stale. This is an album for anyone who’s ever been a child, and anyone who doesn’t fully understand everything that happened in their adolescence; it feels like some sort of cathartic attempt to face past traumas and turn them into something nostalgic and hauntingly beautiful. I don’t know if that’s what Arm’s Length intended, but if they did, they fully succeeded.