POZ Review: Fireworks - Oh, Common Life
by Erik van Rheenen
There’s a terrific Latin turn of phrase that only really gets kicked around in art circles and eloquently worded textbooks, but frames the context of Fireworks’ post-Bonfires discography: chiaroscuro, defined loosely as the bold interplay of light and dark. While Gospel found Fireworks bright-eyed, optimistic, and battling a creeping sense of insecurity with sunny pop hooks and swashbuckling melodies that brimmed over with youthful joie de vivre, new album Oh, Common Life refracts the themes of its forerunner through a darker, more introspective lens.
No longer is this Dave Mackinder (and Co.) Versus the World — Oh, Common Life finds the Fireworks frontman grappling with his own internal demons. Instead of focusing the band’s sights on the “we’re all in this together” ethos that interwove the songs of Gospel, the energy of Oh, Common Life turns inward for an often-harrowing peek into where Mackinder’s mind roamed while penning the record.
The monster looming precariously close to the boy on Gospel’s cover swallows him whole on Oh, Common Life, and it’s made pretty damn obvious from the album’s opener, “Glowing Crosses.” The guitars that drive the song pack a moody punch, and the melody sparks with foreboding. It’s a long way off from “Arrows” and its bouncy call-to-arms that opened Gospel, but “Glowing Crosses” shines in both its maturity and songwriting — its hooks crisp, its chorus undeniable.
Thematically, Oh, Common Life recalls the visceral imagery (“Maybe my brother’s blood/Dripped on me from the top bunk” on the pop-leaning “Bed Sores”) and fixation on mortality (“These houses are headstones/These basements they are graves”) of Stay What You Are-era Chris Conley. Mackinder’s lyricism poetically and poignantly captures his troubled thoughts in three-and-a-half minute spurts; “The Only Thing That Haunts This House is Me” bottles isolation on the edge of loneliness’s fringe with the peppiest chorus in Fireworks’ history, and “Play God Only Knows At My Funeral” pairs striking lyrical remarks about Mackinder’s struggle to live up to his father’s memory with a gutsy melody with emotion to match.
The record also balances some of the band’s most hook-driven moments — “The Only Thing That Haunts This House is Me” and “Flies on Tape” have particularly memorable melody lines — with their most somber. I understand fans crowd-surfing to anthems like “Summer” and “Arrows,” but the intricate subtleties and catharses of songs like penultimate number “Run, Brother, Run” and much of the album’s mid-tempo back half (where the energy level tapers off to give listeners space to breathe and reflect) demands a more introspective listening approach. Some Fireworks faithful might not have the patience to wade through songs without the pop-punk bite of “Flies on Tape,’ but those who do are rewarded generously.
Tagging a record as a “grower” is often a pseudo-death sentence — with such an influx of albums bursting through music’s floodgates each and every week, it’s easy to take on a one-and-done mentality. Don’t like the album on first listen? Boot it from your iTunes library and queue up the next album on your perpetually growing to-listen list. But, odds are, you probably won’t appreciate Oh, Common Life the same way you appreciated Gospel on first listen, and that’s fine. I didn’t either. It takes several listens to unpackage Mackinder’s lyrical shifts and the band’s tack in musical direction, but the record’s taut melodies, brilliant lyrical turns, and sheer emotion make it an album that’s easy to keep coming back to until it finally clicks.
So, yeah, I’m calling Oh, Common Life a grower, and that’s really not a bad thing in the slightest (I mean, if you’re anything like me, Gospel was too). Fireworks could’ve easily written a surface-level pop punk album to please the masses. But they didn’t. Instead, Oh, Common Life is the darker companion piece to the coming-of-age story Gospel introduced — introspective, more mature, and with new insight into life.
Compromise is the pivotal middleman in the relationship between listener and record — give Oh, Common Life enough real estate in your headphones, and odds are, this is an album you’ll fall head-over-heels for.
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