“Have you heard that Lemon Twigs single? Who writes songs that good when you’re that young?” Two years ago, this was the chatter surrounding Brian and Michael D’Addario, two young brothers from Long Island who perform as The Lemon Twigs. In 2016, the band dropped their debut double A-side single online, “These Words” / “As Long As We’re Together,” and people were collectively losing their minds over its endless motifs of baroque-pop and rock ’n’ roll genius, irrespective of the band’s shockingly young age. People were more than ready to hand the band the crown and scepter of the classic rock revival, even though they hadn’t played many shows yet or signed a record deal. Now, aged 21 and 19 respectively, they’ve just released their second studio album, Go To School, and it’s one of the most ambitious rock records you’ll hear this year.
The New York band quickly caught fire, selling out a 1,400 capacity venue in London just a year after they unveiled their first single and counting famous musicians like Elton John, Alex Turner, Questlove, Alice Cooper and Jack Antonoff as fans. After the band released their debut album, Do Hollywood, via 4AD in late 2016 to critical acclaim, a year later, they followed it up with a six-track EP, Brothers of Destruction. After their initial success and wave of buzz that propelled their still fledgling career, it’s hard to imagine the band were ready to take it easy and phone it in—and given the details on their brand new full-length, they definitely did not choose that path.
The Lemon Twigs announced that their next LP, Go To School, would be a high-concept musical or rock opera of sorts, all about a monkey named Shane who was raised as a human by his parents and attends school. Even the biggest Lemon Twig diehards probably stopped for a minute after reading the album announcement news and made sure that they hadn’t inadvertently spiked their morning coffee. The announcement coincided with the release of the album’s closing track, “If You Give Enough,” and if anyone was still skeptical of the concept after hearing that song, they were surely in the minority.
Though it might sound a bit overly ambitious, Michael says they both believed they could execute a musical-based album successfully. “It’s just something that people aren’t doing that we know how to do and we thought we could do really well,” says Michael, adding that they had always wanted to try that but didn’t have the patience when they were younger.
In addition to the brothers mapping out the concept and writing, recording and producing the songs, Brian also arranged and conducted the album’s many orchestrations. While some might read the “rock opera” tagline and immediately place the album in the same vein as Tommy or American Idiot, the album is a musical in every sense of the word. There’s a slight Vaudeville feel to it with peppy brass and strings and a continuing storyline strung together from song to song with characters, dialogue and separate scenes. In fact, the band said the project was primarily influenced by composer Stephen Sondheim rather than any rock-concept records, and that’s not surprising given their affinity for musical theater—both brothers performed on Broadway as kids.
This album might have some new instruments and heightened theatricality, but The Lemon Twigs don’t ditch their classic pop/rock roots. “The Student Becomes The Teacher,” is an oddball T.Rex stomper. “Rock Dreams” is Big Star meets jazz hands meets flamboyant duet. The sparkling “If You Give Enough” is worthy of a Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney comparison. Go To School undeniably features some of their best moments on record so far, and if you completely surrender to its grandeur and eccentric intricacies, you’ll be more than glad you did. “The Fire” is Michael’s (or perhaps the band’s) most dynamic vocal performance to date. And goofy banjo instrumentation aside, “Small Victories” is one of the most beautiful songs they’ve ever written, equipped with biting yet funny social commentary.
Brian’s shining vocal harmonies and stunning arrangements make their pleasant return along with Michael’s fervent voice and the catchy power-pop sensibilities of Badfinger, Big Star and Todd Rundgren, who actually contributed vocals to the Twigs’ new album, playing the part of Shane’s dad, Bill, opposite their real-life mother, Susan Hall, who plays Shane’s mom, Carol. And as for Big Star, their longtime drummer Jody Stephens makes an appearance on track two.
Though Shane is the main character, listeners get just as much insight into the lives of other characters, including Shane’s parents, who adopted Shane after Carol had a miscarriage (“Never In My Arms, Always In My Heart”). Shane, who thinks he’s a human boy, begs his parents to let him enroll in school and they eventually give in (“The Student Becomes The Teacher”). When he gets there, he feels alienated by both the lessons and the students, and he later gets bullied (“The Bully”) and falls in love with the queen bee of the school (“Queen Of My School”). We won’t give any spoilers, but Shane goes through a series of highs and lows throughout the hour-long retro-pop fantasy, with the album’s climax taking place on track twelve, “The Fire.”
Michael says the character, Shane, wasn’t based on the brothers’ real-life selves, but they do share certain commonalities with him, including his ability to tune out the noise around him. “A lot of the album is about going to school and trying to shut out all the negative influences and enjoy it for what it is, even though it’s kind of impossible to shut them out,” says Michael. “Maybe in that way [Brian’s] like the character.”
The album stresses the importance of doing what’s best for you, taking the high road and avoiding toxic people, even if that means isolation and depression. “In high school and before high school, it seems better to join in with the people who pick on people,” says Michael. “It seems like a better idea in the moment to be on that side of things, but really you should stay away from that stuff, even if it means you’re not hanging out with anybody.”
Michael was partially interested in the weird loser-meets-popular-girl archetype in one of their live favorites, “Queen Of My School,” because he identifies with Shane’s outsider persona. “When I was a kid, it always felt like girls—because I was a different style of person or I didn’t play lacrosse or something—looked at me as a separate species, like I wasn’t eligible,” says Michael. “Nothing feels like worlds apart more than the unpopular kid in high school and the most popular girl in high school. I had less chance of talking to them than somebody really famous.”
Another theme threaded throughout the album is that you should find it in your heart to be empathetic towards people who mistreat you because you never know what someone is going through. This was one of the reasons that the band wanted to incorporate the backstories of several of the characters, particularly the bully, the bully’s parents and Shane’s parents.
“I think that parents are so interesting, and we wanted to give everybody a reason for being so nasty,” says Michael, “and that’s sort what we did with ‘Rock Dreams’ and ‘The Bully.’ Everybody goes through enough stuff in their life to become mean and nasty, they just don’t sometimes. All of these people did [become mean and nasty], and that’s the world he’s supposed to be living in.”
It’s clear that this is an album that requires a determined, dedicated listener—not someone who is looking for a record to merely put on in the background. In order to fully appreciate the album, you really have to read the lyrics, follow the story and spend time sifting through the brothers’ painstaking labor of love in all its layers of vocals, instrumentation and over the top glory. Michael says that it also requires listeners to let their guard down and fully commit to the concept.
Asked about the highest compliment someone could pay them about their new album, Michael says, “I really like when somebody fully immerses themselves in it and enjoys every aspect of it, how good the recording is and how good the music is.” He continues, “That they really respect the work that we put in, in terms of the story and they don’t just think it’s bullshit. You have to ignore your cynicism and let yourself enjoy it and not be smarter than everybody else for an hour.”