You can retrace your steps, but you can’t go back in time. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be learned from your journey.
The Juliana Theory returned last year with “Can’t Go Home,” a synthpop anthem marking their first new music in over a decade and a half. It was a bold new direction for the Pittsburgh-bred band, which had spent most of its first decade of existence running circles around its less ambitious post-hardcore peers. A Dream Away, out March 26, 2021 on Equal Vision Records, marks the next step in their reinvention. On the Juliana Theory’s first LP since reuniting, members Brett Detar and Joshua Fiedler chose to reimagine their most enduring songs — assuring classics like “Into the Dark” and “Were At the Top Of the World” could continue to evolve.
“Twenty years later, how can you be true to a song but still approach it with a different lens?” Detar asks. For inspiration, the Juliana Theory frontman thought back to the band’s most recent live shows — a 30-date string of well-received acoustic gigs in 2019. “Every single night, Josh and I started the show the same way. I walked to the microphone and said, ‘I want you to close your eyes. Imagine you’re in a comfortable space: maybe you’re sitting in your living room in front of your fireplace, you’ve got your scotch in your hand, and your dog sitting next to you or your significant other. And we just showed up in the room and we’re going to sing some songs to you.’” That intimate approach deeply inspired A Dream Away, though its reimagined songs are anything but minimal. While the Juliana Theory was dormant, Detar worked extensively in film scoring, composing for horror flicks like 2012’s box office chart-topper The Devil Inside. This flair for the dramatic — coupled with Detar and Fiedler’s love of MTV’s seminal Unplugged series — sparked the duo to trade its rock guitars and percussion for immersive, symphonic suites.
On A Dream Away, “Into the Dark,” long the band’s signature ballad, sounds perhaps even more affecting, draped in cozy strings and woodwinds. “We’re At the Top of the World” simply shifts from perfect power pop to elegant, perfect chamber pop. Other essentials from the band’s 2000 masterpiece Emotion Is Dead — the wide-eyed “Is Patience Still Waiting?” and the once-venomous “‘If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop?” — swell to twinkling grandeur that sounds totally different, yet fully in line with the project’s large-scale ambitions. Other songs called for sweeping change. “‘Duane Joseph’ was the song I got most liberal with reimagining,” Detar says. It first appeared on the band’s 1999 debut, Understand This Is a Dream; an ode to a lost childhood best friend, “Duane Joseph” rocked as if letting up for one second would mean letting go forever. But on A Dream Away, it’s pensive and serene, the soundtrack to some hazy afternoon reverie. The Juliana Theory added a new bridge, a different lyrical section, and sampled the sound of rain falling in the distance. “It doesn’t even sound that recognizable,” admits Detar. “But I’m okay with that.”
While all of A Dream Away sounds new, one song is entirely new. The dramatic opening track “Better Now” was borne from some of Detar’s personal lows during the seclusion of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’d been struggling with a decent amount of depression and some of my closest friends were going through heavy addiction issues or depression of their own,” he says. “A friend came over to my house one night. He didn’t say very much but the way he looked at me let me know he was really struggling.” The next morning, Detar sat at his piano and the lyrics of “Better Now” poured out: “Every time I look into your eyes I see there’s something changing in you, something changing in me. It is getting better now.” Co-produced by Detar and rock maestro Courtney Ballard, “Better Now” sounds as panoramic as the reimagined classics, yet grippingly unique to the present moment.
New and old, the songs are all living and breathing, evolving with the present moment. As 2021 continues, expect the Juliana Theory to do the same.