It’s been just over two years since Real Friends came out with a full-length album, and while this isn’t an abnormally long period, I held firm belief that the band was in the process of creating their best work yet. It turns out, I wasn’t wrong. Composure is one of the best releases you’ll hear this year and is built as a story about the impact mental illness has on our relationships and our lives.
This is an album with a title that is vitally important to the context of the record. The very concept of composure itself is centrally woven through every song on the album, creating a continuity and arc that is impossible to ignore and a story that is liable to hit home for nearly everyone who listens.
As the album kicks off with “Me First”, there’s no composure present. Vocalist Dan Lambton bares it all, singing, “Why don’t you put me first for once / And spare me the bad news / Why don’t you put me first for once / We might need to slow down / Cuz’ I’m not going anywhere”. If you’ve ever been in a place where you don’t feel appreciated, it’s difficult to hold back your frustration once you reach your limit. Straightforward and biting, the character has voiced his concerns and now he can focus on working through it.
The bridge in “Stand Steady” is a continuation of the feelings in the first track. “Here I am / Showing every worry / To the world”, is a short but telling phrase that shows he’s still not cool with what’s going on. However, he’s decided to work on being the stronger person in the situation.
The story truly unfolds in “From the Outside”, which was a very fitting single for the band to release in anticipation for this album. Here we find that the person he’s struggling with is himself. Lambton has often spoken of struggling with bipolar disorder, and this song talks about his prescriptions and his constant need to save face. He’s in the public eye and has an influence. This idea continues on in the next song, “Smiling On the Surface”.
I took “Hear What You Want” to be referencing either a relationship with someone else or another way that he’s talking about himself. “I can’t leave you / You can’t leave me”, could refer to a toxic relationship or it could be talking about his mental illness. You can’t always get rid of what’s going on in your thoughts, and by hearing what you want, Lambton could be saying that the intrusive thoughts are a lot louder than he wishes they’d be, and even though one part of him knows he should ignore it, he can’t.
The next song, “Unconditional Love”, led me to believe that the past song is about a relationship. “You let me down / But you never let me go”, is saying that the relationship wasn’t beneficial, but they’re still trying to make it work despite knowing that it’s only a matter of time before things really go south. The last line of the song is “So let me go”, making clear that our character knows that what’s best for his mental health is to drop things that aren’t fulfilling and healthy.
On the title track, Lambton sings, “I’m reclaiming my composure”. He’s learning how to work through some of the tougher moments in his life. The second verse is where a lot of the darker ideas reside, quite literally. “I never told anyone / But the truth is I see / The shadow hanging over me”. I think this song is about not keeping cool, but losing it. He’s trying his absolute best to keep up with the meds and the preventative measures, but he still feels off.
The biggest thing about mental illness is how it makes you feel closed off from the rest of the world. Being in a crowded room and feeling like you’re the only one there. Doing something you love to do or being with people you love and, right in the middle of it, thinking to yourself that you don’t want to be there anymore.
“Get By” carries on the theme from “Hear What You Want” and “Unconditional Love”. This is the part of the story where our character decides to do something about the weight of this relationship. He breaks it off. An important note here is that it’s never implied that it’s any kind of romantic relationship. Mental illness messes up all kinds of friendships and family ties that, when they fall through, have that emotional attachment that is hard to get over.
A lot of pop punk is based on dating and breaking up (even some old Real Friends songs), but I feel like this album is trying to strike a different chord. The band’s character here is in a tough spot with someone, but not necessarily who we think. I think it’s important to remember that the impact of mental illness isn’t just something to romanticize, but it’s something that tears people apart. It’s hard to look back on your life and replay the conversations where something wasn’t quite over, but being able to notice signs that things weren’t right. Hindsight is 20/20.
The second-to-last track on Composure is “Ripcord”. In the vein of “Get By”, we see this situation from the opposite perspective, looking purely at the other side of this conflict. The other party feels like the character is using them for their support and only calls out when it’s convenient.
This is another facet of mental illness people don’t really talk about. It’s true that someone with a mental illness often fails to see past their struggle and watch the impact it’s having on others around them. Sometimes, though, it’s a protective measure for the person themselves. If they’re not getting the support they need from those around them, their last resort can be just focusing on making themselves able to cope and function. This isn’t an excuse, it’s a fact. So yeah, maybe in “Ripcord” other people in the character’s life are having trouble dealing with the way things are going, but our character himself is also having trouble.
The album ends with “Take a Hint”, where things turn around and settle down. Dan sings, “I’m learning to take a hint / Stay convinced / We’ll see the other side”. Despite the toll this whole ordeal has taken on our character, he’s still willing to find the optimism and works hard to stay in the place of positivity.
You may notice that I only talked about the lyrical merits of Real Friends’ new album Composure. I didn’t talk about how vocally dynamic it is, or how well produced it is, or how the band has matured musically. It is all of those things and more, but I think what’s important here is the message. It’s a cry for a help. It’s an explanation. It’s a warning. It’s a piece of art that highlights one of the most prevalent issues of today. It’s worth listening to not because you love the band or love pop punk, it’s worth listening to because with a little bit of effort, you might learn something.
by Nadia Paiva
Nadia Paiva has been a music enthusiast since she can remember. Going to shows is her main pastime. The other is being upset when she can’t go to shows. This is her first official venture into writing about music. You can follow her on Twitter.