Review Summary: More consistent production doesn't hide AJR compositional shortcomings, and in fact highlights lyrics that have all the wit not of their beloved Disney films, but the terrible direct to video films no one ever saw.
I guess I had to do something to liven up that Three Houses replay. Since reviewing AJR's previous album The Click and having to face yet another advance single of theirs being released for Rock Band, I knew I'd be staring down the barrel of another AJR joint. At this point, the relationship many AJR listeners have with the band is just one of morbid curiosity and hatedom; Spectrum Pulse's review of Neotheater and Fantano's Not Good segment on it were two of their most sought-after videos in a while. But onwards AJR march, and I guess I gotta give it to them that they didn't deliver a Logic-style wangst album about the critics. But there's plenty more stupidity to be highlighted in the lyrics, which only stand out more this time around because of a (slightly) cleaner production.
But I really, really want to emphasis that's it only a slight upgrade. The big point Neotheater has over The Click is its stylistic consistency. The Click was a curdled mixture of Twenty One Pilots' own mixture of hip-hop alt-rock, mid-tempo EDM and symphonic bedroom pop, but Neotheater leans well into the symphonic side with a more tasteful hip-hop influence. Songs abound with either direct samples of old cartoon soundtracks or chopped and screwed samples of symphonic sections backed by very trip-hop sounding beats, notably on the songs Beats (go figure) and Don't Throw Out My Legos. Honestly it's not a terrible musical idea on its own, turning these chipper string sections into either chilled out or frantic re-appropriations of a sound since passed.
Unfortunately, even without a direct invocation of that idea, it's still a tone they rely on way too often. Even with only one out of place dubstep breakdown this time around (way late into the album on Wow, I'm Not Crazy), restraint is not a card in AJR's deck, and the album is very gaudy and loud. Lead track Next Up Forever starts with anthemic choral vocals, giant booming drums and annoying pitch-shifted vocals, so loud and glittery they lose any pillow-y inviting qualities best suited to the composition therein, and similar annoyances are found throughout the album, such as 100 Bad Days and The Entertainment's Here's sharp trumpet breaks.
It's quite odd how abrasive Neotheater sounds despite the lack of obnoxious EDM elements, which is absolutely an improvement, and a demonstration of greater artistic clarity. But it's much easier to blame the production this time around, because the sound is just so smothering and overpowering. Neotheater features many moments of pitch-shifted vocals, so loud as to be invasive to the ear, especially on the pre-chorus of Birthday Party and the start of Break My Face, which appears ten seconds into the song to immediately ruin a serviceable bass line. I don't know much about the loudness war, but something about this album's dynamic range just sounds wrong.
And because the album sounds so overpowering, it's distracting enough to the rest of the album's atmosphere, slim though it is. It's about as much of a slog as The Click even if it's technically more sonically consistent, but this also means a number of the songs sound the same. Break My Face is such a generic composition I was forgetting it AS I was listening to it, The Entertainment's Here's very hip-hop production just gave it no real identity of its own even with the aforementioned horn break, and Wow, I'm Not Crazy's bass is so blown out, it almost makes you forget you're listening to an acoustic guitar song that was literally written in ten minutes. So, I guess we ought to discuss the songwriting next.
AJR's slant towards giant, anthemic sounding songs ought to make them good at melody, but the problem is they sound completely recycled half of the time. Karma truly is the best song on here, lyrics aside, because it has the only real sense of tempo and a nice bobbing and weaving chorus melody. But I have definitely heard that melody before, probably from Robbie Williams, maybe from The Beatles, I'm not sure, but it's uncanny. But there being only twelve notes in any musical octave and only so many scales and modes means some similiarities are going to appear between songs. Whatever. The problem comes when it's obvious the brothers Met phoned it in, with both the intro and outro leaning into the Disney motif enough to sound like quick rewrites of any giant song from the Renaissance films. 100 Bad Days' post-chorus is reused in Karma for no real reason, and in perhaps the album's worst musical moment, Birthday Party's bridge features an interpolation of the “in Heaven, everything is fine” segment of David Lynch's Eraserhead. It's just confusing more than anything, but Neotheater's songwriting is just banal.
The biggest pieces of evidence of such are the three stripped down songs of the bunch. Turning Out Pt. 2, a sequel to a similar downtempo song from the last album, is just Ryan sat down at an electric organ for three minutes, with such a banal melody and chord progression it stands as one of the most underwritten songs on the album, even with a time signature change from verse to chorus. Note: doing this with only sparse piano chords just sounds awkward. Wow, I'm Not Crazy is driven by acoustic guitar, a change from Neotheater's usual texture, but the playing is so simplistic that it's obvious the guitar is only a primary instrument for them in the sense they can immediately pick it up, belch out a few chords, and write some melodies and lyrics over the top of them in minutes. It exposes the basic “building blocks” level of composition the band embodies, and this leads into Dear Winter, which trades in basic strummed chords for basic finger-picked arpeggios. It makes Dust In The Wind sound like Spanish Fly.
But the really sad thing is that these three songs don't sound much different in melody or even structure than the rest of the album, which makes me wonder how much of their mix of bedroom alt-rock and symphonic samples is aesthetic versus gimmick. Certainly, there are too many passages of the beat just dropping out to a piano, like on Don't Throw Out My Legos or The Entertainment's Here. It seems that AJR couldn't shake their desire to be the lo-fi answer to Coldplay completely. And though the pitch-shifted vocals make Cynic's vocoder sound like the harmonies to Bohemian Rhapsody, I would be remiss if I didn't mention how many big choral vocal sections appear to try to lend some ill-deserved gravity to what the band is singing about. Usually, it's just overdubbed octaves too, because the band thinks more voices instantly equals bigger voices.
And thus, we finally get to my true sticking point with AJR: the vocals and lyrics. Again, Jack Met handles much of the vocal work on here, and even though he isn't called on to do much, his texture sounds so flat and banal even with his mildly growling tamber that there isn't much rough-and-tumble charm to distract from how he simply has no range or charisma. Again, he sounds a tiny bit better than two years ago, but also again, he still sounds like he's trying too hard to be 21P's Tyler Joseph without any of his willowy qualities. So between this and the deluge of symphonic elements that simply makes the album a chore to listen to, the album must rely on the lyrics for its emotional power. Oh boy.
Though I am surprised it did not falter as much as I thought it would, featuring no song as idiotic as No Grass Today, it's no less stilted in its delivery of the image of a generation caught in arrested development, with so much borked emotional logic and uncomfortable revealing of unintentional bad-boy baggage that the overall sentiment should be easy to glean but is difficult to relate to. Next Up Forever immediately hits you with naked insecurity without humility, comparing the fear and joy of the future to bizarre personal prospects like wanting to be a virgin again to learn what sex is like for the first time? Oh, and being scared to release this very album, in case it gets very big, or as stated in the finale, in case it flops and it's their last project. Birthday Party attempts to relay the early thoughts of someone who was just born, when if they have listened to a song like Closing Time, they'd know the power of that sentiment would come from the opposite perspective, from the expecting parent.
Perplexingly, this opposite perspective is offered on Dear Winter, a song written to Ryan's unborn child...where he admits he doesn't even have a partner yet, whom he would presumably discuss a prospective name for their child first. I don't think Claudio Sanchez wrote Atlas until after they knew the baby's sex and thus settled on a name. But even ignoring that, trying to go through all the child's expected life experiences before they're even conceived is a weird, wonky sentiment for a song I'm not sure anyone wants to hear in a stripped down acoustic guitar ballad, especially one which drops a curse word in the chorus. 100 Bad Days is one of the most obvious lyrical punching bags, again trying to waste the vulnerability of their generation into self-aware optimism, but ignoring the practicality of their offering. A hundred bad days may make for a hundred good stories, but someone who has that stories about bad times in their life probably isn't shy about sharing them, making them as far from affable as you can get. Don't Throw Out My Legos, hilarious title aside, doesn't have much emotional logic to it either. The idea of wanting to move out and move forward without discarding what made us when we grew up should be relatable, but his literal idea of such is to get his parents to hold onto his toys rather than throw them out, when he could easily take them with him and store them. At this point in millennial discourse, we're all pretty okay with dismantling ideas of “growing out” of childhood pastimes; we're not ashamed anymore to be playing Nintendo or watching cartoons while also dealing with adult responsibilities, so AJR is just plain late to the conversation, even when trying to hide behind awkwardness and fear.
But their big lyrical faux pas comes when attempting to deal with their level of success thus far. If you thought that lyric about Ed Sheeran writing hits for them was bad, try Beats on for size, where the band semi-sarcastically wants to get a Beats By Dre promo to pay entirely for their production of this one song. If it came true, wouldn't it make the song literally worthless to anyone else? Moreover, it features an instance of their consistent humble bragging hiding behind weakness, where they mention their songs playing on the supermarket radio and wonder when it might come to a stop, with similar notions of self-aggrandisation on 100 Bad Days and especially Can't Wait To See What You Do Next, whose title really says it all even with an attempt to reframe it as pressure rather than bravado. AJR have neither the poetic ability to project true existential confusion and fear of failure in the lyrics, nor the cocksure vocal delivery to sell a subtly cocksure image the same way someone like Oliver Tree can, so it all comes across as self-serving without being self-aware, which just makes it impossible to relate to.
Sure, the album's trying to sell the atmosphere on more of a fairytale quality. Indeed, Neotheater ends with a call-back to the intro song, with a swelling choir reminiscent of the end of an old Disney film, and I can see the value in its attempt, but the band just doesn't have the calibre to realise their vision. Composition and production-wise, most of the songs sound the same, and lyrically, their inability to truly project their situations without also revealing their personal deficiencies effectively defenestrates any storybook qualities the masses of string sections would have you believe. Now that the production is only wholly gaudy rather than a smorgasbord of terrible pop tropes, I can say that the core problem is clear: AJR just aren't very good songwriters. If your biggest criticism was that you sounded too attached to Disney movies from your youth, why would you write an album that sounds like a child could craft it?