Real Friends has been a band that toyed with my opinion of them for several years. While their early EPs simmered with energy and the youthful nostalgia of those new to learning what life is outside of school, their debut LP, Maybe This Place Is the Same and We’re Just Changing did not resonate with me at all. I wanted to love them so badly, but I worried that they were just another flash in the scene destined to fade before they had made their mark.
The Home Inside My Head, the second album by Real Friends, not only firmly cements them as a force to be reckoned with in the pop punk genre, it may be the single most powerful emo album in the last decade.
Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t sound like an album that came out a week ago; Real Friends wear their influences on their sleeves proudly. THIMH sounds like it may have been recorded at any point since 2000 and would have been just as powerful then as it is now.
While there is a definitive improvement in skill and writing throughout the album, there is a sentimentality and respect at points where you can hear an influence from another band (they even name-drop ‘Death Cab’ and ‘Dashboard’, just cuz). “Scared To Be Alone” sounds like it was ripped straight off of The Starting Line’s Direction. The rash guitars rival the harsh melodies that The Wonder Years made famous on The Upsides, but the softer, broodier songs and the heart breaking self-deprecating lyricism remind me of The Early November circa The Room Is Too Cold. On a side note, Real Friends have always reminded me of TEN, but that could just be vocalist Dan Lambton’s shaggy head of hair compared to the curly fro of a young Ace Enders.
Real Friends manage to enthrall the entire record with loud melody. “Stay In One Place” is a seminal opener, catchy on the first listen and an intense rocker to lead the charge. “Empty Picture Frames” is a new staple that begins with subdued power cords before unleashing a torrent of sound during the chorus, backed with soaring, multi-tiered backing vocals. The painfully soft “Mokena” pulls the emotion out of Lambton’s voice, as he shouts, “I’m fucking up and getting over it”.
One of my biggest critiques of earlier Real Friends’ music was that the songs were trying to be ‘sad just to be sad,’ or they seemed somewhat generically emo. That is still true to some degree, as there are still too many references to ‘the past’, or just the word ‘sad’ in general. However, The Home Inside My Head, a metaphor for the lonely comfort you can find in yourself while the outside world eats away at you is much more refined while staying on point. There isn’t a happy ending here, just growth.
Dan Lambton’s vocals are cleaner and more emotive than past work, and it pushes more heart into his lyrics. One constant of Real Friends is that Lambton sings about reflecting on his past, most likely high school, and how happy he used to be compared to now. The Home Inside My Head can be relentlessly harsh like that. On “Stay In One Place,” while hating how a loved one takes out their anger on him, Lambton asks himself, “Can you find your calling if nothing is calling for you?”
“Keep Lying To Me” finds Lambton still wrestling with a failed relationship as he sings, “Last night I closed my eyes and thought about someone that wasn’t you / The weight of the world slipped off my shoulders /…/ I know this isn’t where you want to be / I think I’m better off when I’m alone”.
However, there is a glimmer of hope that begins during “Empty Picture Frames” and sprinkles itself throughout. This might be the only place he finds comfort as he breaks himself down mentally. “The home inside my head has a bed for me / That no one will ever get the chance to see / A kitchen table with one chair, walls with empty picture frames / That no one will ever see”.
Through the cresting waves of depression, self doubt and harsh reflection, lines crop up from time to time that show progress pushing through the darkness, such as “Last year I was a trainwreck, now I’m just a mess” (“Mess”), or “Show me how to be something other than nostalgic / I want to feel inspired and innocent again / I just want to be worth your time” (“Well, I’m Sorry”).
The Home Inside My Head might be the essential playbook on emo for this generation, similar to the way The Get Up Kids’ Something To Write Home About was almost 20 years ago. It is brazenly open, honest and over the top in a way that reminds you why emo became such a force to be reckoned with in the first place. The tip of the hat to other bands seems like a flourish to anyone listening closely, like a musical wink to fans. Real Friends are at the top of their game, and made an album worth the time of anyone who has fallen in love with the genre within the last twenty years.
by Kyle Schultz