Review Summary: You can take the YouTube critics and their stans on their word for this one. The Click is every horrible millennial pop cliche thrown into a blender with no care for artistry, mostly bland but occasionally unlistenable.
I'm surprised and then some that Sputnik doesn't have a full review for this beast yet, considering it arguably did attract more attention than AJR were expecting, albeit in the worst way possible. While a bunch of YouTube critics went in on it, the biggest source of this album's infamy was, of course, Anthony "theneedledrop" Fantano, who placed The Click at #7 on his ten worst albums of 2017 list, citing the album's lyricism and overall mood as a result of "pop music written by people whose only exposure to the outside world was Disney movies". Spectrum Pulse also had a meaty review, more or less denouncing the millennial fantasy that AJR were offering in lieu of Twentyone Pilots' Blurryface, the obvious point of comparison, and likely the obvious source of inspiration.
Now, I'm hardly a stodgy critic myself, even if I do have my shrewd moments. But I just got done reviewing the discography of an unapologetic pop-rock outfit, and speaking more realistically against this album's talking points, I will go to bat for 21P any day of the week, I like a good share of Imagine Dragons songs despite how often they're called everything wrong with modern pop and rock, and even Starset will occasionally get my begrudging respect, all of which is to say I didn't go into The Click wanting to hate it just because hating it is more popular than the album itself really is, because I don't hate every millennial pop trend and sound out there. But if you do, oh boy, I couldn't even imagine what this sounds like to you, because I found it pretty unbearable.
The overture is less an index of AJR's sound and more a blaring warning siren of what's to come, a vignette of a number of the album's motifs, melodies and instrumentations just thrown into a blender and spat back out with very little craft to speak of. It's about as abrasive sounding as a pop song can get, and it just hits you one after another with a lot of the Click's annoying calling cards: fake vocal synth drops, annoying falsetto backing vocals, faux-dubstep wubs, synthesized horns and strings, trap drums, simple chorus melodies. And what really strikes me about all this is that despite being annoying and loud, it's not necessarily that impactful. Even on a pure noise level, it doesn't have any sense of visceral gut and grit to it like a metal album, or even a mainstream techno album from Skrillex or Deadmau5. The whole effect comes off as a flat, dull thud. Lot of force, but no power.
Which is also both an apt and inappropriate way to describe our lead vocalist, Jack Evan Met, the J of the band's name. If there is any facet through which you can accuse AJR of being 21P copycats, it's here, as his slightly rangy but ultimately flat and dry vocal delivery is very close to what Tyler Joseph is doing most of the time. And I would never call Tyler a terrific vocalist, but even he has an edge to his voice Jack does not, an idea highlighted by how much judicious autotune is present on the record for the simplest, easiest vocal passages. Again, it sounds like every speck of grit was filed off to sound pleasant but unassuming, homely but with absolutely no edge at all. Rivers Cuomo is present for a few bars of Sober Up, and he doesn't sound that much different, but even his short time on the record provides some depth and edge that the brothers Met cannot provide, because there's just too much gloss and plasticity in the performances. This is, of course, before they let loose in their higher registers. Whether taking on lead vocal lines (Weak, I'm Not Famous) or as part of the backing track (Netflix Trip), the falsetto on offer is truly obnoxious, this wicked shriek of forced chipper attitude that makes Chris Martin sound like Minnie Riperton.
But to go back to the autotune for a second, I'm not opposed to autotune on principle. It's just emblematic of the entire record's direction and creative bankruptcy that it's just thrown in, not as an effect or even to compensate for their weaknesses in performance, but just because it adds to the bland, milquetoast millennial pop aesthetic. So much of the songwriting on offer is just as cheap and phoned in, with many of the songs like Weak, Bud Like You and Turning Out relying on sparse piano passages to build atmosphere, either at the start of the song or just before the final chorus to build tension. But again, every crescendo feels so flat that it just highlights the artifice of the writing process and takes out what little magic these songs could have had.
And I hate talking about albums in broad strokes like this, but although the album is a smorgasbord of terrible pop cliches, the songwriting, the pure construction of melody and structure is just about as stale throughout. By the time I hit Bud Like You, the second last song on the record, I had basically tuned out. None of the big choruses are even that catchy, and some of them really try to be. Bud Like You opens with a drinking song style chant that is then endlessly recycled, and a similar drone occurs on I'm Not Famous. Repetition should be the key to instant catchiness for a pop song, but the melodies just don't feel like they modulate properly. Lead single Sober Up is honestly the closest AJR comes to a genuine pop moment on here. The songwriting feels standard, sure, but at least the chorus melody bobs and weaves in all the right places, and is almost distant enough from the verses and bridge to form a real hook, but not quite.
But the album's biggest catch-22, and likely its biggest sin even by pop standards, is that even if the songwriting were better, more inspired or just catchier, The Click would still feel incessantly bland/blandly incessant thanks to the instrumentation, which would run the gamut if the gamut it were running weren't the shallow pool of contemporary pop trends. There's a bunch of classical instrument lines on here, but most of it sounds synthesized. Sober Up's cello sounds decent, the trumpets on Netflix Trip and Weak sound terrible. Most of the drum beats are just traps and a few 808 rattling hi-hats, particularly on Drama, where the chorus with its hi-hats and hollow toms undercuts the percussion-less breaks, not that the random DJ break and the end, or the very wubby bassline, really help sell the atmosphere either.
There are some songs on here which are a perfect storm of bad, with really uninspired songwriting only highlighting how hackneyed the instrumentation is. The first real song on here, The Good Part, only has two real choruses, and the chorus is just an instrumental break where these almost beautiful violins are being slapped atop a thunderous drum beat, giant millennial whoop backing vocals and a sampled voice counting upwards to the beat. All of itself is just an admission of how creatively bankrupt the project really is, and this is before we have even mentioned the lyrics at all.
If you ask me, this is where the album turns from intolerable to actively contemptible, as AJR is clearly trying to tap into the same moody sense of millennial angst and misfit energy as Twenty One Pilots, but it's all just so...bull***. Some lyrical conceits feel like they could work if the lyricism were just more sweeping and poetic, like Netflix Trip relating the flying by of life experiences to binge watching a TV show. Corny, sure, but not dissimilar to what a band like The 1975 have been doing, and could have made for a vivid screenshot of modern life if put in the right hands. But again, AJR is just so flat and unpoetic and, well, lifeless, that it never really takes off.
But at least that's better than lines like "I'm weak, so what's wrong with that", a clunky attempt to relate to the self awareness of our generation, or literally including the line "I grew up on Disney, but this don't feel like Disney" on Turning Out, ruining an otherwise serviceable knock-off of a lighters-in-the-air Coldplay ballad. The overall lyrical atmosphere is definitely trying to be a prettied up 21P, but AJR just doesn't try nearly hard enough to relate, whereas Tyler Joseph tries his ass off to relate his experiences, often to a fault, but it's still a huge schism in wordsmithery. In Stressed Out, they actively talk about trading in childhood dreams for modern life mundanity, and how suddenly and coldly that hits. Its most vivid spots might be its most lyrically awkward, but it's still something to grab onto, an element of humanity AJR does not possess.
Then there are songs on here which are just idiotic, with the band playing very fast and loose with how they view fame and celebrity culture. They denounce reality TV and how we're all attached to it (supposedly) on Drama, but don't really examine how it fits into our everyday lives. They'll make a Billy Joel Entertainer-esque ode to record company bull*** on Three-Thirty, highlighting the superfluousness of most songs on the radio, seemingly missing the irony, and concluding by claiming they could easily get a hit if Ed Sheeran was writing their songs...twice. But two songs later, the eyeroll-inducing I'm Not Famous denounces the need to get famous by claiming that, as a result, they have no haters. Obvious falsehood of that statement aside, how bad do they think haters are against all the fame and money that these pop stars get that they'd happily trade it in just so people can't talk *** about them online" The phoniest moment on here, however, has to be No Grass, an anti-weed diatribe that tries to claim that anyone can do weed as long as it's not at their shows, and actively saying they don't care about its legalisation. Totally ignoring that the issue of legalising weed is not (just) about being able to do this one vice, but is also about the wider fight of removing the stigma it has when compared to the more dangerous alcohol and nicotine, as well as properly regulating it for safety, and for some people, legalising it so the system can't jail people of colour disproportionately for a minor crime, as is a huge problem. It's the kind of insular mentality that tells me these kids only like Rage Against The Machine for including the F-bomb in their biggest song, or else think "love is love" and never call out their drunkard friends , seemingly referencedon several of these songs, for dropping F-bombs of a different kind, if they ever did. You know, the kind of people who think their "more objective and distant" experience is the only one that's real and developed.
And that's really what it comes down to. The Click reads as entirely artificial and insincere. It's difficult to buy any sound from this album as a true creative decision, even if it's something like the nice gospel influences on No Grass, or the weird Imogen Heap-esque break of Call My Dad, whose somewhat inspired vocoder use is soon undercut by the start of Come Hang Out. Which is a good analogue for the experience of this album, really. Even the pleasant parts just sound bland and creatively bankrupt, but occasionally it turns from bland to abrasive thanks to the carelessness of the instrumentation, and from abrasive to insufferable thanks to the lyrics. It's easy to find fans of individual songs, but even the most easy to impress pop stans don't really go to bat for this album, which speaks wonders. Because it's just so trying very hard to be inoffensive that it...well, pretty much wraps right back around. It's a soundtrack for yuppie head-in-the-clouds kids who want to sound in tune with the zeitgeist for just one day, with the kind of instrumentation that appeals only to those upset by the avant-garde stylings of Maroon 5.