Review Summary: At worst, uneventful. At best, pretty damn energetic.
When Sleeping with Sirens released “Feel” a couple of years ago, I assumed that the messy and schizophrenic sound it had (along with the unnecessary number of cameos and guest appearances) was the direct result of label interference, given that Rise Records is known for such inanity. The band’s exodus from the label last year seemed to confirm this. For any other group, a simple label switch would be an uneventful side note – but SWS created a true star for Rise, who made sure lead vocalist and professional heartthrob Kellin Quinn was always in the spotlight for their thousands upon thousands of fans to eat up, creating things like $100+ VIP tour packages that let you have the privilege of simply taking a photo with the man.
But in retrospect, a band that seemed as in control of their own destiny as SWS did when they signed with Epitaph and released the decidedly aggressive “Kick Me” couldn’t have been too far removed from the process of writing their own material or deciding the influences it contained. Which makes the cohesiveness of “Madness” even more satisfying; it dials back the extraneous aspects of their sound and focuses on formulaic, addictive songwriting.
Reading between the lines of the label switch and the tone of the band’s new singles and music videos leads to an interesting revelation – Sleeping With Sirens is tired of being known as Kellin Quinn and The Rest of Those Guys. For one, the entire band is on the cover of the album, and the songs don’t stretch Quinn’s vocal range every time, which gives the songs some much needed breathing room and lets the other elements of the song bleed though more. The textured guitar work from the band’s first two releases is long gone, as “Madness” sees the band drape itself in a vaguely punk aesthetic. The tracks that stay true to this hit impressively hard: “We Like It Loud” makes you think it’s going to build itself up but instead blows right into the simple-but-catchy main riff, because it knows teenagers like the money shot as quick as possible; the aforementioned “Kick Me” is an anthemic den of curse words directed at everyone who’s ever made fun of the target audience; and “Better Off Dead” has a particularly peppy chorus reminiscent of pop hardcore bands like Conditions. The hard-hitting production by John Feldmann breathes a ton of life into the admittedly predictable riffs and progressions.
But behind the Epitaph signing and the energetic singles to push the idea of a heavier sound, the band also flexes its pop muscles to create some fairly compelling slower tracks as well. “The Strays” is a fairly simple and immediate song, but Kellin’s singing sells it hard enough to ensure it doesn’t leave your head. “Fly” takes a few listens for the hooks to really kick in, but it’s a varied and well-composed song that features a bit more virtuosity in the vocals than most of the other songs here. There are some duds – “Left Alone” and “November” are pleasant when they’re playing but after numerous listens I still couldn’t recall any melodies from them.
The lyrical content is probably what will divide most of this album’s listeners. When I first heard “Kick Me”, I appreciated the intensity but cringed at the choice of wording (“You don’t know ***, ***, ***/Don’t know a goddamn thing about me”). After multiple listens it got easier to condone, but it’s not poetry by any means. Maybe the point is that it’s childish nonsense, but it doesn’t stop it from being childish nonsense. Luckily, most of the album fares much better – the topics are nothing imaginative, but bluntness without the snark that usually comes with it is a bit refreshing. “We Like It Loud” is a bit ironic, in that it talks about how the band will never “give in” and become radio music (“Sell us the world but we ain’t selling out” and “No don’t wanna hear another song on the radio pumpin’ through my stereo now”). It may be the heaviest song on the record, and it’s obviously a song about why they left their former label, but given that it’s a track from their most accessible and radio-ready album yet, Kellin seems to be struggling with a bit of cognitive dissonance. The best lyrics come from the final track on the record, “Don’t Say Anything”, which features Kellin talking to a special lady who’s phoned him in the middle of the night and is so emotionally burnt that she can’t even bring herself to speak. It’s a sweet track, and the fact that it’s a regularly paced song and not a ballad keeps it from becoming too cheesy. And there’s even a possible reference to ”The Fault In Our Stars” that the teenies are sure to like – Kellin talks about how he hates “the space between us”, “the grey unknown” that they find themselves in when they talk on the phone. I think addressing the disconnect in understanding that humans experience when they resort to using technology to communicate is about the headiest subject that Sleeping With Sirens will ever address, so that’s worth a penny or two.
Overall, “Madness” is Sleeping With Sirens’ full entry into the world of radio rock, and perhaps is intended to initiate a different form of stardom than they’ve previously experienced. They’ve rejected the world of Joey Sturgis and Warped Tour and attempted to play down the fame of their biggest member, but the careful way this album was crafted suggests an ambition higher than ever before. It won’t hold up for too many plays and it doesn’t quite have the charm or creativity of “Let’s Cheers To This”, but if you’re looking for an easy listen that will get your head nodding and your mouth moving, this should be right up your alley.