Review Summary: I can see a glimmer...
If I’m going to write a review about a Marianas Trench album, it would be irresponsible of me not to establish that I carry a great deal of sentiment towards the band, especially its 2015 release Astoria
. That record, themed after 80's adventure movies, became the soundtrack to an adventure of my own; In the fall of 2015, I left college and my sophomore slump behind to go play bass Hedwig and the Angry Inch
in Traverse City, MI for a month. The 7-hour drive up was also my first chance to listen to Astoria
in its entirety, and it has now irreversibly become a nostalgia trap for me. It's fitting, too. Reviewers have cited the album's err.. willingness.. to borrow some of its content from the popular music of the late-70's to early 80's, which is shamelessly my favorite era of pop music's history.
there are thematic and theatrical elements at play, as is to be expected from the Canadian Pop Rockers on this their 5th full-length LP. The theme this time around is, as I understand it, the way that love, or lost love, can at times feel supernatural and/or paranormal. The song titles, like "Your Ghost" and "Echoes Of You" are a bit heavy-handed, but I was actually pretty excited for a ham-fisted Black Parade
-esque foray into some darker territories. The first three tracks of the record execute this pretty well, and I'll keep things short by saying tracks 1-5 of this album are really quite excellent pieces of the extravagant, bombastic pop music we've come to except from Marianas Trench. While Astoria
was a love letter back to the days of Michael Jackson, Prince, Queen and Whitney, Phantoms
finds itself much more grounded in 2019.
By this, I mean that there are five songs in a row that utilize very similar song structure. What was so appealing about Marianas Trench's songwriting was their willingness to have wordy hooks. Hell, even their song making fun of pop songs had more words than a lot of these choruses here. For five consecutive tracks on Phantoms
, you have your verse, pre-chorus, and then the hook is basically a (very tastefully produced) synth driven instrumental with the title of the song thrown in there every four bars. I'm not here to dunk on contemporary songwriting, but these tracks feel a bit same-y, and while songs like the midtempo "Don't Miss Me" and na-na filled "Wish You Were Here" work well with their own unique flair, the following three tracks feel quite disposable. On what basically amounts to a nine song album (opener "Eleanora" is 68 seconds), that's a bummer.
"Glimmer" serves as the true ballad of the album. It's a similar tempo and style to Astoria's
"One Love", and the comparisons don't stop there. The two songs aren't copies of one another, but they're fair to compare, and "One Love" is one of the weaker songs on its album. I'll say I prefer "Glimmer", but that could easily be recency bias. The "I Knew You When", the first track released from the record back in late 2018, has a few nice things happening in the production of its house-pop beat, namely the low-pitched horn stabs in the chorus, but ultimately feels too made-for-radio and not enough like it adheres to the once-gleefully silly scope of the band's discography. "Your Ghost" is the most uninteresting track the band has released since its debut album. Josh Ramsay's vocals have never sounded more exposed, and that's difficult to do. He's a supreme talent, and it hurts to hear his voice done so little justice on such a boring arrangement.
"Echoes of You", however, is anything but boring, it's an absolutely audacious, epic, fist-pumping banger with a welcome guest appearance by Jellyfish's Roger Manning Jr. "Only The Lonely Survive" will gladly accept its invitation to join the many pop anthems the group has accumulated over the years. Penultimate track "The Death of Me" features some of the best, most nuanced lyrical content from Ramsay as well as some truly excellent vocal effect work by Ramsay and the mixing team.
This brings us to the finale, "The Killing Kind", which somehow manages to be one of the best songs in the band's catalog while also simultaneously being hugely disappointing. For the two records preceding this one, the closers "No Place Like Home" and "End of an Era", of Ever After
felt like they should have: grandiose, cathartic finales to musical journeys that left me feeling immensely satisfied. Perhaps it's an indictment on the latter half of the album that "The Killing Kind" feels thoroughly unearned, and even more unfortunate, inauthentic. While "The Killing Kind" checks all the ambitiously bonkers boxes, it feels as though the band believed they had sent me through another Ever After
, when in reality I'd just been mostly enjoying some higher quality Chainsmokers-derivative modern pop music from one of my favorite bands. Ultimately Phantoms
is 15 minutes shorter than Astoria
but somehow manages to feel more like a tale of two halves fighting one another. It's tracks 1,2,3,9, and 10 taking on the rest. Luckily, we can each pick our favorite. I think I know where I stand.