Review Summary: All crash and not enough love.
To call AFI a band in an identity crisis might be to put things a little too lightly. AFI has never been a band afraid of change, seeming to transform their sound and image with every couple of albums they release, but their past few albums have been the most drastically diverse (and some might say conflicted) of their entire career. While 2000’s The Art of Drowning saw AFI excel at the dark, emotional punk rock they had built their career upon, the band moved into Thursday-esque post-hardcore territory with 2003’s Sing The Sorrow, flirted with synthpop and sugary pop-punk on 2006’s Decemberunderground, and then went on to spawn the 80’s inspired electro-gothic act Blaqk Audio in 2007. All this seemed to lead up to the release of Crash Love in the fall of 2009. Expectations for the album varied wildly --- those who saw Decemberunderground as the death of AFI predicted a spectacular flop, while some fans held on to the hope that the album would return to Sing the Sorrow’s incredible promise. But what did we actually get? I’m not sure anyone is quite sure.
Maybe the bland, generic gold-flecked heart design on the album’s cover was intended to serve as a warning to everyone who used to love AFI’s brooding lyrics and gothic image. This isn’t the AFI we’re used to. But then again, there hasn’t been an AFI to be used to in at least 10 years, so that comes less as a surprise than as yet a disappointment. Most of us thought we’d die before the day AFI would put a sparkling golden heart proudly on the front of one of their albums. It would seem we were wrong.
But the album cover simply sets listeners up for a far greater surprise upon putting the album into a CD player. Like the calm before a storm, Torch Song opens with around 15 seconds of mysterious, echo-y ambiance, then descends into a spectacular and bombastic guitar solo comparable with the best that Jade Puget has ever recorded. The opener flies by on Puget’s soaring and flawless guitar work, in the process actually convincing the listener that maybe, just maybe, this will turn out to be the best AFI album in a decade.
The quality continues with the album’s second and third songs, the glam rock anthem Beautiful Thieves and the subtle, gorgeously textured End Transmission. The latter song, in particular, is easily one of the best things we’ve heard from AFI since the start of their career almost 20 years earlier, washing over the listener like the greatest song The Cure never wrote. Even Davey Havok’s lyrical impressionism recalls hints of Robert Smith and Morrissey, weaving a story of an ethereal and haunting night.
Then, it seems, we hit the “crash” referred to in the album ‘s name. Too Shy To Scream is nearly unlistenable, a bubblegum pop stepchild of Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People that never should have been written. Veronica Sawyer Smokes returns to the Cure-like sound of End Transmission, but without the quality of the earlier song, while Okay, I Feel Better Now is a generic and forgettable latter-day emo ballad. The album almost saves itself with the spectacular guitar work and stunning bridge on Medicate, but then crashes yet again with I Am Trying Very Hard To Be Here, which comes across as a mediocre attempt at 80’s glam metal, and Darling, I Want To Destroy You, a bland song with irritatingly overused vocal manipulation and an even more bland chorus. In fact, by the time that closer It Was Mine comes along, it’s hard to tell the songs apart from one another. They all fade into a blob of generic modern pop-rock, most definitely the furthest thing from what most of us imagined when we thought of AFI’s future.
But the real tragedy of Crash Love is that it could have been so much better. The album is packaged with a number of B-sides, the worst of which is still better than almost everything on the actual album. Not only that, but the best of the B-sides, Too Late For Gods, is an absolutely sublime anthem which stands among the best songs this band has ever written. Why didn’t these incredible tracks make it on the album? I’m not sure we’ll ever know, but it’s incredibly depressing to listen to B-sides like Where We Used To Play and Breathing Towers To Heaven and think about all the wasted potential this album had. Crash Love could have been amazing. It really could have.