Review Summary: If the Chocolate Factory Tour in Willy Wonka went completely according to plan.
Third albums are always a difficult hurdle for bands, but in Motion City Soundtrack’s case, it was more akin to a daunting, impossible hill. The group’s first two records, I Am the Movie
and Commit This to Memory
, are prefect examples of what a first and second record should do. I Am the Movie
was an effective mission statement, showing an admiration for catchy hooks and a decidedly oddball approach to pop-punk. Commit This to Memory
took things several steps further, showcasing tighter instrumentals and a surprising amount of depth in Pierre’s tales of unhealthy coping mechanisms, sabotaged relationships, and self-inflicted isolation. It wasn’t a complete overhaul of the formula I Am the Movie laid out, it simply found the sweet spot.
This begs the question, “what should a third Motion City Soundtrack record sound like?” The obvious option would be to make a glorified sequel to their landmark record, which could be a fan-pleaser, but it could also draw attention to what Commit This to Memory
always was – a musical ceiling of what the band could do with this style. Instead of this, we see MCS simplify their sound while adding a glossy - at times blinding - sheen of production. Instrumentals are much more streamlined, which isn’t inherently a bad thing; If anything it shifts the focus to Pierre’s catchy hooks, which are still as infectious as they’ve always been. The best example of this is lead single “This Is For Real,” which is infectiously fun enough to distract from its lack of depth. Plus, the group still manages to throw in the odd key change here and there to mix things up.
The worst tradeoff, however, is that in place of lyrics detailing interpersonal battles, is cute-quirky “boy-next-door” lyrics that would make any gamer girl - or Rivers Cuomo - blush. A quick read of the lyrics to album downpoint “Antonia” could make any fan question if this was the same person who penned songs such as “Hold Me Down;” songs that took a more mature look at love, not just the expressions of wide-eyed puppy dog infatuation that are littered across this record.
As an introduction to the record, “Fell In Love Without You” is a clear attempt to emulate Commit This To Memory
’s masterful opener “Attractive Today.” It’s surely just as fast-paced as Memory’s opener, and it certainly solidifies the band’s reputation as very tight performers, but it reveals its hollowness the more it goes on through its lyrics. The group keeps things pretty up-tempo throughout the record, which is certainly to the benefit of these songs; If these songs are going to be empty, it’s certainly better to keep them speeding along. Even a slight tempo drop in songs such as the opener or “It Had To Be You” would take whatever punch they have out, exposing them as chart-reaching tracks with cheeseball lines that wouldn’t feel too out of place on a teenage boy’s note passed in class to the girl he likes.
While the group’s first couple albums are perfect examples of what a first and second effort should do, this album acts as a cautionary tale of what “playing it safe” can be: sacrificing some of what made a group special for accessibility. While there are still a few surprises to be found here, it’s likely for established fans to be turned off from the record by the overtly cute lyrics. The songs are catchy and sugary, but by the end of the record, many will be left wanting something more substantial.