Review Summary: A Lesson In Romantics is like most pop-punk. It's just a hell of a lot better.
Once you accept a single, underlying premise, pop-punk music becomes a lot easier to understand and appreciate: most pop-punk bands aren’t trying to change music, let alone the world. A genre known for being tight-fisted where experimentation is concerned, and shamelessly giving birth to failure after failure of month-long next-big-things, it is much maligned for its narrow spectrum of sounds and the perceived absence of any sort of ambition. As soon as you get past that, though, and stop worrying about whether it has as much influential clout as Thrice’s latest album, or whether it will have an impact on what the next generation listens to, it becomes evident that pop-punk does have ambition, and it does also have purpose. Fail though many do, the genre is (largely) a free-for-all of a million different bands all trying to do the same thing better than everyone else. And if you ask me, that’s a pretty intriguing dynamic.
Everybody knows you can’t do good pop-punk without heavy hooks that a generation of teenagers can memorise after just two listens; catchiness is the name of the game, and A Lesson In Romantics
is rife with it. It’s the mainstay – the cornerstone of everything this album achieves – and it’s everywhere. Breathless, melodic and rhythmically brilliant, not a single song on this record escapes your grasp. Take the first and last tracks – Jamie All Over and You Be The Anchor… respectively - and you have the album’s core qualities exemplified, serving as a bracket to 10 more tracks which will ingrain themselves in your eardrums just as effortlessly. Jamie All Over’s passionate cries merge so well with the broken guitar riffs and energetic drumming you’ve heard a million times before, but it’s just better
. You Be The Anchor’s melodramatic and softly-spoken verses and choruses float around arpeggiated guitars you’ll recognise from elsewhere, but it’s just better
. It teeters on the edge of being pretentious but always manages to stay the right side of the line between obnoxious and moving. The aforementioned closer in particular builds to a crescendo through its gradually quickening rhythm section and faintly heavenly production.
The simple, sing-a-long vocal melodies and riffs are what keep the album on its feet when it might otherwise drift into mediocrity; Black Cat is a perfect example of a song that has basically nothing about it except for its catchy, stuttering refrain. This, however, is a rarity – it’s certainly the only time that a hook saves a song, because usually it’s another powerful ingredient in the fairly typical formula. Mayday Parade’s knack for constructing songs around pulsating, hyper-active choruses is just superior to most people in the game.
Near the centre of the album lies a track which should very definitely seem out of place, but somehow is able to blend seamlessly with more pacy numbers either side of it. Miserable At Best is a sappy piano-led ode to an ex-girlfriend which revolves around the line ‘I can live without you/But without you I’ll be miserable at best’. Honest? Yeah. Moving? Yeah. Over the top? Perhaps. But it carries the sincerity off remarkably well, and the bridge takes the song into a place the record doesn’t otherwise dare tread anywhere near, that spine-tingling realisation that the emotive lyrics are genuinely felt and not fabricated or exaggerated; indeed, the aforementioned ‘miserable at best’ lyric shows a self-awareness most pop-punk bands abandon in favour of hyperbole and cliché – it may not be Shakespeare, but it’s damn fine in places.
That’s not to say the album steers clear of clichés – Walk On Water or Drown contains the almost obligatory mention of stars in its hook-line ‘As I’m looking to the sky to count the stars, I wonder if you see them where you are’ – but where the songwriting does allow itself to become less than stellar, it is usually propped up firstly by context, and secondly by the extremely fun nature of the pop-punk sound that this album captures so well. And for the most part, the lyrics are intriguing and complement the music fantastically; every track seems to comprise a well-balanced mix of the heavy and the light-hearted, with only a few exceptions. Despite the subject matter pretty much always being a girl, the lyrics range from break-ups to missing her, from leaving her to wanting her. When Walk On Water Or Drown throws at you ‘and you got here just in time / to let me know I was worth saving / if nothing more than for the heart’, you realise, if you haven’t already, that a lot of thought and heart does go into writing this stuff. Not a second of it is lazy.
Obviously, there are certain things that make this album a Mayday Parade album, however much it follows the formula. Jake Bundrick‘s drumming ensures that the angry tracks sound angry and desperate from start to finish (If You Wanted A Song Written...), and that the more contemplative material stays on its feet and compelling (I'd Hate To Be You...), and combined with Jeremy Lenzo’s bass work makes certain that every chorus explodes in time-honoured fashion. The vocals don’t sound over-produced, and have a whispered quality about them, even when they’re shouted, that makes Derek Sanders’ and Lenzo’s delivery one of the most convincing, and occasionally shiver-inducing, to grace power-pop in the 21st Century.
Mayday Parade are doubtless a talented set of musicians, and have some technical ability, but let’s not get this twisted: A Lesson In Romantics is made (and boy, is it made) by the songwriting. There’s nothing particularly admirable about how they do things except that the things everyone else does – the hooks, the heart, the anthems and the energy – are so damn well executed every time. If you're a pop-punk fan at all, you're bound to love it, as it speeds through 45 minutes of music that you'll remember every single second of. It pushes very few boundaries, it’s derivative and it’s sometimes predictable. It’s not In Defense of the Genre or Deja Entendu. But thanks to a bucketload of energy, enough variation to keep it from becoming samey, and a track listing which allows the momentum to swing breathlessly between ideas and melodies, it brushes just about as close to pop-punk perfection as you’ve ever heard and likely ever will do. If pop-punk is a genre where a million people are trying to do the same thing better than everyone else, then this album sets the bar that other people are reaching for, and it sets it very, very high indeed.
Jamie All Over
Miserable At Best
Walk On Water Or Drown
You Be The Anchor...