Review Summary: Here's where second best overtakes the rest.
In the end, there isn't much middle ground with Say Anything. I think that at first most listeners find them average and, over time, the band either grows off them or grows on them to the point where Bemis and co. become one of the listener's favorite bands. 2004's ...Is A Real Boy was a heralded rock album, and it was indeed great, but ultimately it sounded like it was made by someone who spent an hour in a restaurant pouring soup onto the floor spoonful by spoonful, and that's because it was. 2007's In Defense Of The Genre feels much more grounded, tuneful, and above all, sane
, showcasing Bemis' newfound sobriety. He even sounds happy occasionally.
However, the great thing about In Defense Of The Genre is that not all of Max Bemis' insanity was lost in translation between records. Making good on his claim in "Admit It!!!" that he'll rest when he's dead, Say Anything's first double album is full of his trademark catchy melodies that we heard in "Spidersong" and "Alive With The Glory Of Love," but this time around there's a confidence that wasn't heard on ...Is A Real Boy, where Bemis acknowledged all of his personal problems with a sense of simultaneous revelry and self-loathing. If ...Is A Real Boy documented a tortured young man's journey to self-acceptance, then In Defense Of The Genre is that same young man realizing that self-acceptance won't solve all of life's problems, but in the end it's still worth living.
"Skinny, Mean Man" is a hard-rocking, anthemic opener that Bemis seemed unwilling to write a few years ago; "Belt" came close, but ultimately its five minute length hindered its ability to pique enough interest in the rest of the album. "Skinny, Mean Man" is propelled by driving, aggressive verses with an amazing use of high-pitched background vocals. The song's feel is different from those on ...Is A Real Boy; the aforementioned confidence that Bemis shows on this album is very apparent. He sounds like he's in control, and all of that uneasiness felt from hearing him sing "Never killed nobody; I promise you're my first" on "An Orgy Of Critics" is erased. "No Soul" is half as heavy and energetic as "Skinny, Mean Man" but three times as venomous, with a bit of electronic elements mixed into the chorus. In Defense Of The Genre is full of things like that - little elements that keep listeners interested and coming back for more.
The most interesting thing about In Defense Of The Genre is that Bemis enlisted the vocal talents of some of rock's biggest names, each of them to guest on one of almost every song. Initially it seemed like a clever marketing ploy to get as many people as possible to check the album out, but even diehard Say Anything fans probably didn't expect the guest spots to be so tasteful, subtle, and just plain awesome. As in everything she does, Paramore's Hayley Williams is the initial standout; Bemis hinged a lot of the album on her performances in "The Church Channel" and closer "Plea." Both feature sweetly poignant moments; it's amazing just how well a more conventionally talented singer like Williams works with Bemis, who by no means has a beautiful voice. The fact that those two tracks are two of the album's best just goes to show that basically everything she touches turns to gold. However, it's the more subtle performances that turn out to be the most enjoyable; Anthony Green shows up for all of fourteen seconds in the background of "Hangover Song" and still manages to be the best. The presence of these guest singers speaks more of Bemis' rehabilitation than anything else could; for someone who was always portrayed as a mad loner a few years ago, this is a major, yet pleasant, turnaround.
Because there are so many songs, it's difficult to point out all of the album's high points, but "Shiksa (Girlfriend)" is the best track, and potentially the best song Bemis has ever written. Triumphant and energetic, with creative guitar riffs and licks, this is Bemis at his absolute greatest, and Caithlin de Marrais' vocals during the last chorus is the album's best moment. "An Insult To The Dead" is an acoustic track in the vein of "I Want To Know Your Plans," only it doesn't feel as cheesy. The gothic-style choir vocals that back Bemis in the middle of "Spay Me" are equal parts intense, immersive, and beautiful; and then there's the emotive bridge of "The Word You Wield," and Matt Skiba's vocals in "About Falling," and the fake-out ending of "People Like You Are The Reason People Like Me Exist," and the opening guitar riff of "I Used To Have A Heart." It's a wonder that Bemis has any ideas left at all after recording this album.
If In Defense Of The Genre has one flaw, it's that it may not have the same lasting power that ...Is A Real Boy had. ...Is A Real Boy was an insidious grower, sneaking into the mind's crevices; the chorus of "Spidersong" might pop up seemingly at random, or the guitar solo in "An Orgy Of Critics" might be tapped out on unsuspecting knees, inspiring one to go back and relisten to the album. In Defense is immediately effecting, catchy and infectious, and it could be that because the listener doesn't have to spend much time with it to love it, it will get lost in the mix of other catchy albums. Bemis' antidote to this was, of course, writing enough material for two discs. By offering such a large cache of music, the immediacy of the songs is offset by the sheer amount of them; comparatively, the time spent with this album could be equal to or even more than the time spent with ...Is A Real Boy. Bemis may be crazy, but he knows what he's doing. Of course, twenty-seven songs may be enough to turn some people off before even listening, so it's a double-edged sword. However, fans of ...Is A Real Boy should find no disappointments here.
What exactly is this album defending? Pop-punk? Rock? Or music in general? Bemis' candidness and abrasiveness are off-putting for some, but hasn't music always been an outlet for the rebellious, a vehicle for society's scorned to tell everyone else to fu
ck off? He's created something special with this record. Bemis has an uncanny knack for being able to write lyrics that convey so much in their bluntness and simplicity and this album is full of songs that everyone can relate to. It's an album that will certainly be there for you no matter what mood you're in, if only you'll let it in. As Bemis himself said after the release of ...Is A Real Boy: "This is good, but just wait...it's going to be so much better."