When We Were Seventeen

Arguably the greatest concert lineup I ever saw was a 2005 bill featuring Paramore and Cartel as the openers for The Receiving End of Sirens and Acceptance. 17 years later and it seems impossible that those bands could have possibly toured together, given the way that each of their legends has expanded in the years since. Each of those bands is among my all-time favorites which made last month’s surprising release of a new Cartel single a legitimate cause for celebration in my house.

Cartel was a lot of things: Marketably pop-punk, indisputably catchy, and that band in the bubble. They were also deceptively clever songwriters. In the heyday of the band’s star-making debut, Chroma, the joke was that you could turn any song into a Cartel song by throwing in a diminished seventh chord but the reality was that Cartel was actually exploring some interesting song constructions underneath their highly polished veneer.

Take “Q” and “A,” the closing tracks of Chroma. Just as their titles suggest, the tracks function in tandem, with each feeling like a necessary part of the other. But more than that, “A” is a fascinating, nearly-ten-minute reflection of the entire album that precedes it, featuring snippets of melodies and progressions that appeared across Chroma. For a pop-punk band, it’s a weirdly prog moment. Obviously, I love it.

Fast forward to 2009’s Cycles, on which album finale “Retrograde” utilizes the album’s name as a theme, essentially cycling through the same progression on repeat, escalating and resetting it over and over to great effect. And then, years later, the final track of 2013’s vastly underrated Collider would call back to the album’s best moment—the bridge of “Uninspired”—in its outro. Despite the prejudices of the genre, Cartel wasn’t out there making pop-punk by just wailing on power chords (and diminished sevenths). The band was thoughtful with their craft, and their songs remain worthy of deep engagement.

In that vein, “17” is fantastic. It’s a song about leaving the past behind, and it also includes everything I want from Cartel in 2022: layer on layer of Will Pugh’s seemingly perfect pitch, drumming that propels the song forward, simple but highly effective guitar riffs and bass lines, and a series of melodies that create an immensely satisfying vibe that I want to live in for hours at a time.

Honestly, I’m still in a state of shock that we got a new Cartel track at all. It even seems like a few more might be on the way, and you can bet that I’ll be there to consume them, even knowing, as “17” is eager to remind me, that “it’s never gonna be the way it was when we were seventeen.” And that’s okay. It would be impossible to remove nostalgia from the experience of listening to a band I’ve loved for nearly two decades, but with Cartel, that is far from the only reason to keep listening.

This song originally appeared in the Songs & Stories newsletter. Be a friend and sign up here.

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