Last year, when the Get Up Kids released their third album, On a Wire, it was quite a departure from the group’s hard-charging, Superchunk-biting early records. Instead of writing about the great emo triumvirate—(1) waiting for something, anything to happen; (2) being disappointed when something, anything happens; (3) looking back wistfully on the innocent days when you were waiting for something, anything to happen—the Lawrence, Kan.-

based outfit explored themes such as family relationships, social responsibility, and looming mortality.

On a Wire landed with a splat. It was a sincere run at growed-up, slowed-up Heartland pop, and it immediately alienated the Get Up Kids’ young fans, who didn’t really want to hear a catalog of singer Matt Pryor’s strange new anxieties. Indeed, “Overdue,” the album’s first (and last) single, found Pryor worrying, on the eve of his first child’s birth, whether he’d be as poor a father to her as his dad was to him. It was hardly the stuff the PSAT set worries about, and when I saw the band play a few months after the album came out, the kids bounced like Ritalin fiends during old songs such as “Ten Minutes” and “Red Letter Day” but stood Paxil-still during the new material.

So it’s probably a safe bet that similar subject matter ain’t gonna appear on the Kids’ make-or-break next record—which is probably why Pryor reactivated the New Amsterdams, once his acoustic side project but now a vehicle for fully realized songs that skew a bit higher age-wise. Case in point: The new Worse for the Wear, the group’s third album, opens with a nice little pump-organ-and-Mellotron instrumental that cribs from Neutral Milk Hotel before bursting into the salty, sprightly pop of “The Spoils of the Spoiled,” in which Pryor sings, “I’m older now/And don’t you know/I’ve figured out the antidote.”

Pryor’s songwriting has improved markedly over the past few years, and he’s now capable of clever arrangements and lyrics much deeper than those on any of the Get Up Kids’ records. Acoustic guitars, pianos, and the odd horn section amble by at a pace that’s perfect for counting white lines slipping beneath your tires. Pryor does a bit of that himself on “Asleep at the Wheel,” a sort of “Take It Easy” for Gen Y types with their own tour buses. “We never will make load-in,” he sings wryly, “if the ephedrine don’t kick in.” The guitar plays a jaunty lick, a banjo bubbles back in response, and everything’s wound up in under two minutes. Leave it to a maturing emo kid—Pryor, a husband as well as a dad, is interested in drugs only when they ensure punctuality.

“Hover Near Fame” is where Pryor earns his stripes, however, spitting “New York nightlife isn’t shit/Without a storyboard” and skewering drunk celebrities who don’t pay their tabs, overpriced bars, and plain ol’ phonies with all the Mr. Smith Goes to the Coral Room vitriol of someone who’s a Midwesterner by choice, dammit. “You’re just milking this for access,” he sings with affable disdain. “Excess, destined to impress.” The jaunty, vaguely Folds-y drum-bass-and-piano instrumentation helps a lot, too.

Some records make you play air guitar, but Worse for the Wear makes you want to play air side project, bobbing your head like a bass player on holiday from a metal band or grooving like a drummer who usually plays guitar. This is partly because Pryor is now a man in service to the groove—handled here surprisingly well by the Get Up Kids fraternal rhythm section of Ryan and Robert Pope. But it’s also because he seems to have learned a lesson about putting across serious subject matter: These tunes are presented in such a breezy, to-the-point manner—the whole shebang is little more than a half-hour long—that they initially seem of passing importance.

But Pryor is nothing if not serious, and his sense of purpose manages to revivify even the tiredest of rock clichés. “From California” is the inevitable road song from a guy who knows from writing by the light of his bunk. He’s got no time for his relationship because he’s got to go on tour, where he has nothing but time to think about what he could be doing better in his relationship. “I hope that you know this is killing me,” Pryor sings. “It’s all in the name of the family/Only can play the cards the dealer dealt us.” OK, it’s hardly “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”—hell, it isn’t even “Mama, I’m Coming Home”—but this is the kind of song that has you at “Hello,” and if you’re not fighting the urge to grab your lighter by the first chorus, you’re a much stronger person than I.

Like a lot of Pryor’s chord changes, the production is notably Beatlesque throughout, with nicely distorted drums, jingling tambourines, and cresting harmonies. Each song is terrific to sing along to at the top of your lungs, no matter how many people are in the car. The title track, for instance, sports an “A Day in the Life”-sounding piano backbone, and it and “Are You True” have pleasantly unexpected minor chords. Small revelations, sure, but Worse for the Wear doesn’t need bigger: It’s as tightly wound as they come, and if liking this stuff means growing up, I say bring on the house in Burtonsville. CP