Chicago quintet Plain White T’s have been turned completely inside out but are just as strong as ever on their upcoming eighth studio album Parallel Universe, set to be released on Aug. 24 via Fearless Records.
As their first offering with the label in 13 years, Universe more than symbolically marks the band’s return to their pop-punk roots; it pushes aside the massive success of their Hot 100 chart-topping tune “Hey There Delilah” and allows the band to confront more pressing concerns in their own personal lives. Lead singer and songwriter Tom Higgenson reflects on the band’s early days of chasing success and not being quite prepared for it once it hit, along with the freedom that comes with letting it all go.
“It’s like we were still in that mentality for a while with the grinding and trying to make it,” Higgenson tells Billboard. “This album, it’s finally like there’s no pressure to write that big hit single; nobody out there is expecting anything from us. So it’s up to us to deliver, and remind people who we are.”
The time between Universe and their last record, 2015’s American Nights, hasn’t been anywhere close to coasting for Higgenson though. As a single parent who has spent a good deal of time on the road, the singer gained a fresh perspective through new challenges and experiences and the lessons that followed.
“You just tend to do stupid s–t sometimes, and so in the past I haven’t really been vulnerable enough to sing about something like that,” he admits. “On this album I think I allowed myself to open up a little bit more about just being like, ‘nobody’s perfect.’”
He goes even deeper, saying, “I’ve got my son — which is the best, best, most amazing part of life — but as you get older, it gets lonely sometimes. So we definitely dive into themes like that… just kind of bouncing back from life. And a lot of it I put back into the songs.”
Although some of the “darker” material stems from the broad, natural pressures of adult life, one particularly constructive session arose from a single tragedy in 2017. Higgenson recounts a last-ditch writing trip last October that happened to follow the Route 91 Harvest music festival shooting in Las Vegas, which Nashville songwriter and T’s collaborator Brandon Day was attending before heading to the Malibu retreat the next day. Though Day was not present for the night’s harrowing events, the experience shaped the direction of the writing session, and colored the resulting tracks with a sense of urgency and purpose.
“It was freaking paralyzing to everybody,” Higgenson recalls. “Needless to say, [Day] didn’t make it out to Malibu until the next day super late, because everything was shut down in Vegas. So we didn’t really write anything that day. But then the next day, we started writing… and then we were on a roll.”
One of the resulting tracks is the album’s first single “Your Body,” which Higgenson describes as “the gateway drug to the new album.”
“It still has the elements of like ‘OK I get it, totally Plain White T’s,’” he details. “But we’re also dabbling with some electronic elements in there, to kind of shake it up and give it that vibe that the rest of the album has as well.”
The track is an edgy yet sultry slow-burn, which features an enticing electric guitar melody, synth flourishes, and a catchy hook. Coupled with the video that pulls from the song’s sci-fi theme that is equal parts Edward Scissorhands and Ex Machina, the self-described “retro-punk from the future” aesthetic of their latest project starts to come into full view.
“Because we did this thing with the audio, with the album, with the songs — where we kind of flip everything on its head — we want to do the same thing with all our visuals,” Higgenson explains.
“Overall we just didn’t pull any punches,” he continues. “We make a lot of moves that you wouldn’t expect all throughout the album. Like, every song has something to get your attention and make sure you’re still listening.”
Though the band seems to suggest a complete mirror-image reversal with Parallel Universe, the new and improved Plain White T’s have kept the best parts about themselves still intact.
Parallel Universe was produced by Matt Squire (Ariana Grande, Panic! At The Disco), and arrives Aug. 24 via Fearless Records. Pre-orders are available now here.
Check out the video for “Your Body,” exclusively on Billboard below.