Review Summary: Say Anything are growing irrelevant, but that hasn't stopped them from making a good record.
Most people realize, whether consciously or subconsciously, that vague lyrics are the best kind. It's why the Justin Bieber and One Direction fangirls are so obsessed - they can pretend that the girl the song is about is them. Same with a lot of emo bands - "gah, that's exactly what that bitch did to me!". The ability to project your own wishes, insecurities, and other feelings onto the lyrics is a cornerstone of modern popular music. So it might seem surprising that pop punk band Say Anything has built a huge following based on how vague their lyrics AREN'T. Mastermind Max Bemis lays out his life struggles in excruciating detail, never leaving much room for interpretation and always living up to the title of the band he formed. The lyrics are so explicit and honest that the band almost feels like an album to album autobiography of Bemis' life, and the only thing that keeps them from being purely emotional ramblings is his incredible sense of poetry and wit.
And as well as that's worked for most of their discography, most people would agree that they've been on a slight downward trend since their masterful sophomore album. "In Defense of the Genre" didn't have the insane genius of "...Is a Real Boy", and their self-titled was more cohesive but didn't have quite as much personality as the previous two records. But "Anarchy" was where fans started jumping ship en masse. Instead of writing about his struggles and personal issues, Bemis wrote about his love life and how happy his existence had become after being a Christian. I've never personally heard the album, so I can't comment on the quality of the music, but the general consensus seemed to be that the lyrics were terrible and so was everything else. Say Anything became dead to a lot of people. Things weren't looking good. So how do you follow up an album that was universally panned? Do you make another attempt to return to your earlier sounds? Do you just call it quits and accept that you're washed up and irrelevant? According to Max Bemis, you slowly extend your middle finger to everyone, and release arguably your best album in years.
The main premise of Hebrews isn't the most original idea, but it's certainly novel: take a pop punk band that's been fairly guitar oriented since its inception and transform it into something that doesn't use guitars at all. It mostly takes an orchestral approach and heavily features the use of real violins. On the surface, this doesn't change the band's sound at all. It's still composed like something the band would usually write and doesn't take the pop approach that songs like "I Can Get Sexual Too" or "Do Better" did. But the texture it brings is very interesting; it's offputting at first, but then you begin to appreciate the little touches that the approach lends. Songs like "Hebrews" would still sound great using guitars, but the orchestral feel bring so much more to the key moments. "Boyd" is essentially a hardcore punk song written with violins, and manages to pull it off it a way that sounds way more epic than guitar could convey it. And "Six Six Six" is probably the best song for the format, with its symphonic opening and the way the strings carry the chorus.
But obviously the most important part of any Say Anything album are the lyrics, and Bemis sounds as potent as ever. On "Judas Decapitation" he deals with his frustrations about the reaction to "Anarchy", as ironically and self-referentially as he's managed in the past. "Hebrews" is about the struggles of minority groups and Bemis' own Jewish heritage. "My Greatest Fear is Splendid " addresses Max's anxieties about his own future and the perils of aging. But the most beautiful song here is "Lost My Touch", where Bemis has a touching moment of acceptance about passing the torch and peacefully continuing to fade into irrelevance.
And that's where Bemis leaves us, really. "Hebrews" is not Say Anything's best album, or their riskiest, or their most inventive or definitive. Aside from the synth business, it sounds like it could have been released in 2007. The lyrics aren't as crushing, the issues aren't as touching, and the orchestral atmosphere doesn't really lend itself to teenage angst. But it's still an amazing album from a talented songwriter who, this time, proves that his life doesn't need to be in complete shambles for him to put out a decent recording, and that his band losing popularity doesn't mean his music has to suffer.