Review Summary: Years later and, much to the disapproval of his fans, Max Bemis still hasn’t written Flies in All Directions.
Two years ago, my friend and I developed what we thought was a fool-proof method of establishing the actual quality of an album. We’d ask ourselves “If this was the artist’s first album, would they have been as loved as they are now"” We would then look at this question as objectively as possible and come to sad truths about bands we love. Say Anything’s latest effort, Hebrews
, throws a wrench in the works when trying to answer this question. The problem being that this could not have been a debut album. Don’t misunderstand, the album works on its own, and each song can be enjoyed by an unfamiliar listener, but Hebrews
, at its core, is a response: a response to fatherhood; a response to disgruntled former fans; a reaction to oppression, both small and large-scale; and a recognition of the fact that the role of a musician changes as he or she ages.
When 2012’s Anarchy, My Dear
was released, it was met with disappointment from fans of the sound Say Anything had established beginning with …Is a Real Boy
and ending with the self-titled. There were some who thought that the self-titled warranted a return to form, and saw Anarchy
not only as a disappointing album, but as a failure to redeem the band. Though there were a few who saw value in the album, their voices were drowned out by loud requests that Bemis recreate the experience of …Is a Real Boy
. He’d have none of it however, as proven by Two of a Crime
, the 2013 debut by Perma (Max Bemis and his wife, Sherri Dupree-Bemis.) This album served to cement the fact that Bemis had no plans to return to his former drug-use, promiscuous behavior, or to stop talking about love and the personal redemption found therein. At this point, fans of Say Anything were incredibly scattered in their expectations for the band’s future.
When the recording of Hebrews
began, some responded with resentment, some with hope, and most with curiosity. The questions became more abundant when the announcement was made that the album would have no guitars whatsoever, but would instead feature an orchestral backdrop. As it turns out, the actual sound of the album isn’t far from what you’d expect to hear on In Defense of the Genre
or the Self-Titled: tempo changes, a heavy focus on dynamics, a powerful rhythm section that drives the songs, and strong melodies – it’s all found in spades on Hebrews
. The opener, “John McLane,” stands as one of the best intro tracks of any Say Anything album yet, with an upbeat but understated keyboard/synth base that complements and emphasizes Bemis’ vocals along with his signature self-deprecating quirky lyrical style. The album hits true stride with “Judas Decapitation,” a song of disdain toward the aforementioned hateful fans that features one of the more immediately catchy choruses of the album. The following two tracks, “Kall me Kubrick,” and “My Greatest Fear is Splendid,” are highlights: the latter sounding like a cynical, angry fun. with an extra dose of inner demons. The best guest vocal spot (each song features at least one) is found on the well-received “Push,” where Aaron Weiss of MeWithoutYou does what Aaron Weiss does best.
The rest of the album reigns in the darkness just a bit to delve into the topics of love, fatherhood, and the implications of aging for a musician. Overall Hebrews
is clearly the most lyrically personal album Say Anything has released. Bemis obviously felt a lot of pressure from fans to release something recycled and inauthentic and opted instead to create something new and true. From singing about remaining true to his artistic vision (“Judas Decapitation,” and “Lost My Touch,) to the psychological damage experienced by minorities (“Hebrews,”) to the massive impact falling in love and starting a family can have on a person’s outlook on life (“Push,” “The Shape of Love to Come,”) Hebrews
embodies the spirit of the small-scale, individual anarchy Bemis has such affection for more than any of the previous Say Anything albums, including Anarchy, My Dear.
He seems to be discovering who he is in respect to the music culture he delved into 10 years ago, as well as in respect to the greater society he is a part of, and of course, in relation to his family. Among all of this, he chooses to remain independent of and unaffected by the voices demanding he make music, write lyrics, and behave in a particular way.
As for the question - the litmus-test of sorts that my friend and I apply to new albums - the simple answer is that I don’t know. It's not a relevant measure of this album. Hebrews
may not be your favorite Say Anything album; Hebrews
may not be the return to form you had hoped for, but it is clearly the genuine and painstakingly created product of an artist in perpetual transition.
For fans of: In Defense of the Genre
(especially disc 2), the self-titled, Nate Ruess (maybe.)