Some of the best pop-punk/emo acts of my generation were signed to Fueled By Ramen. They boasted some heavyweight artists with the likes of Fall Out Boy and Jimmy Eat World. In that context, maybe it makes sense that a humble band from Flint, Michigan called The Swellers flew under the radar for so many people.
I'm not saying they weren't popular or that they weren't relevant. It's just strange to me that they aren't more talked about today like other bands in the genre. I conducted some VERY anecdotal research and I found that the people I expected to know The Swellers had never even heard their name. Now, I wasn’t pulling from a 10,000-person sample size, but it honestly surprised me that only one of my pop-punk loving friends that I talked to had heard of the band.
The Swellers started touring as far back as 2002 in the first iterations of the band. By the end of 2008, they’d signed with Fueled By Ramen, and had been on bills with the likes of Paramore, Less Than Jake, Motion City Soundtrack, Bayside, and Texas in July.
Ups and Downsizing was The Swellers’ first release on Fueled By Ramen. And while it was critically-acclaimed, in my opinion, the band never got the recognition they should have - due largely to the timing of the release.
This record dropped on September 29, 2009 and, like I mentioned earlier, garnered great reviews - among those a 4.5/5 from AP. The very same day though, The Swellers’ labelmates Paramore released Brand New Eyes.
This was a big deal, because Brand New Eyes was the follow-up to Riot!, arguably Paramore’s magnum opus. I can’t describe how anticipated this album was at that time within the scene. Hayley Williams could do no wrong and Riot! had made Paramore one of the biggest acts in the world. It's important to note that there's no animosity between the bands. In fact, The Swellers' drummer, Jon Diener, tweeted in 2018 about how the band stayed at Hayley Williams' apartment around the time they were signing with Fueled By Ramen. Read the full thread to learn some little known facts about the making of Ups and Downsizing.
I remember getting an advance copy of Brand New Eyes and that record was all I listened to for a solid couple of weeks. I think the release date really played a big part in The Swellers not getting as much attention as they should have. Hell, that’s exactly what happened to me! I'm glad I found it. Realistically though, it’s hard to say if that would’ve made a difference or not.
Interestingly enough, in my research I did notice that the AP rating I mentioned for Ups and Downsizing is the same as Brand New Eyes’ rating with a 4.5/5.
I honestly couldn’t even tell you what put this album on my radar. Maybe it was a music video on Fuse? Either way, it was probably mid-October by the time I actually heard Ups and Downsizing for the first time.
I was hooked when I heard that sweet, sweet, high-energy pop-punk goodness. The songs boasted melodic verses and huge pop-infused choruses, with a singer in Nick Diener who wasn’t scared to dig deep for what he wanted to say. The overall tone of the instrumentation reminded me of Rise or Die Trying-era Four Year Strong. Diener’s vocals are understated, but solid with energy akin to The Audition’s Danny Stevens. I struggle to find an album in ANY genre where the first three songs hit me the way “2009,” “Fire Away,” and “Sleepers” do.
In the record’s opening track “2009” Nick Diener sets the tone for the album. “I keep on my shoulders the weight of the world, but I broke when you asked for a ride.” It’s the feeling that you think you have it all on lock and that you’re in control--only to be confronted by the one thing you weren’t prepared to face. I was in from the jump. That has always been the thing that elevated an album in my mind. For a writer to put into words the feelings I’ve never been able to articulate. You hear the lyrics and think, “man, how did I not think that exact same thing, in that exact same way?” That’s special to me and it’s found all over this record.
Whether it’s talking about becoming a product of your environment in “Welcome Back Riders”--”I've seen my fair share of ghosts, but what scares me the most is seeing what's coming. Growing older and giving up and I won't believe it.” or questioning existence, death, and spirituality in “Dirt”--”And with that said, don't say a prayer for me today. God and I, we never really spoke anyway. I tried sometimes, but he never wrote back.” Diener’s writing tackles many of the same things we’re all dealing with in our own ways.
That excerpt from “Dirt” is especially poignant for me now. I struggle reconciling faith in a higher power to my experiences in my 30 years on this planet. Back in 2009 those words didn’t resonate with me. Listening to this song 12 years later, it hits me in a completely different way. I found new meaning in those words all these years later and to me that’s what makes a song great.
The Swellers broke up in 2015 and as far as I can tell haven't toured since. I realize that may have a lot to do with why they aren't put into the same company as other bands of the time. But, if you love genuinely good pop-punk with lyrics that aren’t the same, boring drivel we’ve been beaten over our heads with, check this album out if you haven't already.