Review Summary: "Blue tree tops and velvet skies! You ready to blow your mind?"
I don't even remember the last time I heard this album. I just know I listened to this a ton in 6th grade and if you remember my A Thousand Suns review (if you read it) I had very little knowledge of music at this time. As much as I loved it, I knew it wasn't a totally perfect album. I didn't like about 1/4 of them (so 4 of the 14 songs) but the rest more than make up for it... Despite also knowing the lyrics to a lot of the songs were rather subpar.
Joining Sput about a year and a half later, my taste gave me such a low standard of the kind of music I enjoyed. At the time this was a 4.5 but now revisiting this and listening to it several times and still getting the same feeling I get from this as I did 7 years ago, a 3.5 is much more accurate.
Yeah the lyrics to half of the songs I really enjoy still have mediocre lyrics. I still don't like Killer, Last Breath, Our Song, and Make it Up as You Go (jeez guys, Tom Petty much") which are all practically filler and the title track is still a poor closer. However, everything else is just really good pop rock that blows everything else they've done out of the water. Songs like Boomerang, Map of the World, and Broken Record have fantastic hooks and creative instrumentals. On the other hand, Rhythm of Love, Airplane, and Body Parts act as welcome changes of pace with the slower tempos and prominent acoustic guitars.
However, one huge thing that has greatly bugged me listening to this was the wasted potential. The lyrics to Killer and the title track sound like they were written right there on the spot; they are ideas created in the first draft without further thought and care in expanding or improving on them. Instrumentally, those two are just as interesting as the rest but the lyrics are so painfully bad, it made me wonder how such a leap in quality exists within the rest of the fantastic songs. With the idea of these two feeling particularly unfinished in mind, I was finally able to figure what was the biggest flaw hindering the album so much: the band did not take the concept far enough.
Cirque Dans La Rue (which is still one of my favorite songs on the album despite the repetitive and nonsensical lyrics) tries to be a Plain White T's song while also paying homage to Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite. The band tried to balance these aspects but ends up being in a painful limbo between the two. The brass and other circus-esque instruments should have been more prominent while the other layered vocal(s) of Tom should have been much louder to properly double-track the lead vocals to really convey the surreal mood they were trying to go for. This was something that oddly sounded effortless to the band on Welcome to Mystery earlier on in the tracklist, although the biggest difference is that song fully committed to going all out with its strangeness.
Considering the potential wasted, I feel either the producer/record label meddled with the songs to make the album more accessible and not alienate too many fans or they just simply lacked enough creativity. However I doubt it's the latter because of how much of an improvement this album is on every other album in their discography because of the amount of risks the band made (at least all of those that made it onto the final record). Also, considering how the lead (and only) single Rhythm of Love poorly represents the album as a whole, yet pretty much dominated the radio upon release pretty much leads me to believe the former.
The production throughout the album just feels so wrong as well. The songs are compressed to the point where the distorted guitars on the soaring choruses to Boomerang, Welcome to Mystery, and Cirque Dans La Rue (for example) sound paper thin and the bass becomes hard to distinguish. Tom himself isn't a bad singer but he's too high in the mix and the drums throughout the album are too low. Hell the "thud thud thud" that enters on the lyric "Her heart beats like a drum" on Rhythm of Love has little impact because it's too quiet.
On the other hand, one of the most interesting creative choices the band decided to take a risk with that does not end up feeling wrong is allowing guitarist Dave Tirio co-write Rhythm of Love and Body Parts and let him take up the role of lead vocals. Despite his lack of vocal range, he does little in the way to go out of his capabilities and his silk smooth (with a touch of neck beard) voice perfectly compliment the two acoustic driven tracks. His voice is seductive and playful on the former on the former and him getting out of breath towards the end of the song is something that makes my smile grow bigger because it's not very common to hear any of these kinds of imperfections in pop music. On the latter, his voice evokes a more subtle approach to the topic of heartbreak, something that Tom, quite frankly, couldn't do as good a job at.
The concept of childish naïveté and growing up is a risk that pays off half of the time (mostly due to it being inconsistent but even then, that works in the album’s favor). However, when it succeeds, the songs are a blast to listen to. Irrational Anthem starts the album off on an ambitious and energetic note and only really loses momentum on the four filler tracks. Map of the World, Cirque Dans La Rue, Boomerang each have the best hooks on the album and have such an infectious melody that the cheesy lyrics become easy to ignore and invite you to shout the chorus along with Tom. The only time the concept becomes such a detriment to the listening experience is when it comes to the title track because the lyrics are too lackluster to let its other positive aspects outweigh them.
Despite its flaws, I still have a fondness for the album. All the songs that I still enjoy have aged just fine, it's just that now that I'm older, I can properly pinpoint what exactly prevents this album from being better.