Album Review: The Front Bottoms – In Sickness & In Flames

[Fueled By Ramen; 2020]

The Front Bottoms‘ records are simple and warm and fun; they wrap you up in their rich and welcoming world. The duo of Brian Sella and Mat Uychich are consistently frank and sharp with their words and continually charming and encompassing with their beats. Their latest, In Sickness & In Flames, continues this trajectory and pushes the boundaries of their sound into new territory.

No matter your thoughts on the changes The Front Bottoms have made over the years, this record incorporates some element of what you love about them. Genre bands are always characterised as ‘growing up’ after a certain point, and undoubtedly many will say this is their most ‘mature’ record, which is to suggest their other records are juvenile. That’s absolutely not the case here. What does happen on this record is a development of their sound and ability to combine their humour with their introspection. “bus beat” is a perfect example, as Sella documents his marriage and the realisations it brought to him: “I’ve been wasting too much of my time with all the bullshit / I’ve been giving too much of my life to my emotions.”

This self-evaluation is the standout theme on the album, and comes to a head on the blistering “leaf pile” with its grungy feedback soaked repetition of “I wanna be that person again.” Later on the track, anxiety-ridden guitar screeches as Sella yelps, “I wanna feel that same sense of calm / I wanna feel that same sense of peace / It felt so real before you got here / It will be restored after you leave,” which bleeds into the spoken-word section as if he’s convincing himself of the right direction and others of his state. It’s as if, as a band, they’re purging themselves of destructive forces.

From the positive and affirming “everyone blooms” with its calls of “So wherever you are / you’re gonna be fine, fine, fine,” to the campfire singalongs of “Fairbanks, Alaska,” which is as soulful as the scenery it describes, the singles here are a barometer of the messaging The Front Bottoms are putting out into the world and the damn catchy way they’re doing it.

It’s surely some kind of gauge that this album fits the Covid-ridden world we live in perfectly with lyrics like “I mean obviously I’m distant / I’m a thousand miles away,” or the painfully on-point “I am the virus here and now / focus on that / zone it out” – and all of this is by no means purposeful. Even the title In Sickness & In Flames takes on new meaning these days, but Sella and Uychich investigate their lives and places with a combination of comforting kid-gloves and crushing honesty that manages to never quite gives way to bitterness. This is the secret of The Front Bottoms’ success: they always feel like family. 

Between these 12 tracks it’s not always as immediately saccharine and hook-filled as earlier records and there’s a clear sense of progress in the way they are using and expanding their instrumentation. They’re a band who have always been more interesting than their genre labelling would lead you to believe. The keys and electronic flourishes here on the “oohs” of “new song d” are at once summery and hauntingly ghostly, while the way “the truth” grows from a simple guitar strum pulls you into its dream-like twinkling.

Instances like these create a more layered and polished sound, which isn’t to say the personal and makeshift feeling of their earlier works has vanished. The vocoder opening of the infectiously repetitive “jerk” feels like early hellogoodbye and Sella’s vocals always retain a raw genuine quality.

In Sickness & In Flames is one of The Front Bottoms’ most interesting records to date; it’s completely them – and obviously so – yet they change just enough to keep you guessing without alienation. Sella says it best when he sings, “It’s like I’m wearing a mask / but you can still see my face.”