Review Summary: They've pretty much done everything under the pop-rock sun.
It's almost frustrating listening to this album. For fans of Say Anything's earlier works, In Defense of the Genre is a shockingly new experience. That's clear from the start. With a strange deep voice luring the listener into an onslaught of angelic choirs and subtle but incredibly effective bass-lines (seriously, pay attention to this, I missed it the first few times), the song blows up into a series of catchy, almost post-hardcore riffs and an insane chorus. That is to say, the differences aren't actually a bad thing. But you definitely wouldn't catch many of these songs on ...is a Real Boy.
I guess it's possible that now Bemis is willing to play more homage to his influences and take his ideas further than on '...is a Real Boy' though, because a lot of this was there, hidden beneath it's indie-rock/pop-punk veneer. The choirs were there in 'The Futile', there was a little glam-rock in 'Woe', and there was angsty, almost post-hardcore riffing on 'Belt' and 'An Orgy of Critics', even the RnB pop kind of stuff could've been hinted at by 'Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too'.
So if all of this is such a logical progression, why does it sound so different?
Because listening to Say Anything's music is a lot like watching, or rather listening to, Max Bemis growing up. And we do change a lot in a short time. That change can (and does) lead to a certain lack of consistency. But it can also mean we've improved ourselves, and gotten better at the things we do. By that I mean, the guitar playing is better, the keyboard playing is much better and the arrangements are more interesting then ever before, with more experimentation and twists around every corner.
Watching a guy grow up is a little depressing though isn't it? Not that Say Anything has really ever been a happy-go-lucky band. But it's a little more than that this time. There's pressure on Max, more than ever now. ...is a Real Boy was pretty well received by critics, especially within the indie-rock/pop-punk scene. But more important than that was that you could tell he put his all into it, it was the kind of album that breaks up bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, At the Drive-in or Refused. Except there was virtually no band to break up.
So for In Defense of the Genre, Bemis had to give it more than his all. It sounds impossible, but he did it. Not through necessarily making something better. But by making something that's still insanely good and never having it feel like a retread of a former song.
In a way it's unfortunate though, because in giving it more than his all, Bemis ended up giving In Defense of the Genre a piece of someone else. Guest vocalists abound is not a problem, and they never steal the spotlight, but the performance often comes off as less personal and the lyrics even moreso. The instrumentals occasionally suffer the same fate too, coming off as slightly derivitive, but never stolen.
In the end though, In Defense of the Genre is a monumental success because it just works. Derivitive, personal, technical or not. It works. Every song is memorable and different enough to set itself far apart while still obviously being a Say Anything, or more importantly, an In Defense of the Genre song. It'll be difficult for Say Anything to prove that they can ever surpass this and ...is a Real Boy without changing drastically, because they've pretty much done everything under the pop-rock sun.