Review Summary: American Hero? Underclass Idiot? What gives?(This review is #3 in my "Regretting the Past" series, a series that looks at albums that either ended the careers of artists, or were said artist's first efforts that they clearly don't want anyone to know about. This series began with my review of Alanis Morisette's 1992 self-titled debut. Said review [and CCR's Mardi Gras] will be linked to in the comments section for this review.)
If any time was a time to be political, it was the mid-2000s. Not just in America- sure, George W. Bush's clusterfuck of an administration is one bloody punchline, but you also have to consider Stephen Harper's embarrassing 10 years running Canada, the turmoil over Tony Blair's disastrous job running the UK, etc etc. But for some reason, only America seemed to be interesting enough to write about. And not only did this become more apparent when Green Day came out of the woodwork in 2004 to deliver their career-defining rock opera American Idiot
, but said album set in motion a chain of political messages, both well-advised and ill-advised. A Perfect Circle pretty much ruined any credibility their career had at the time with eMOTIVE
, an embarrassing collection of cover tunes with a remix of their single "Pet" made purely for movie trailers (yep, I blame "Counting Bodies Like Sheep" for the epidemic of "edgy movie trailer remixes), the very ill-advised "Axis of Justice" concert is something that will forever be seen as the antithesis of political concerts, and lest we forget Kanye West's infamous "George Bush doesn't care about black people" rant- which somehow only propelled his career.
So what does Sum 41 have to do with any of this? Glad you asked. Just look at the first band I mentioned in the above paragraph, Green Day. Until they released the aforementioned opera, their fanbase was waning, and Warning
was routinely agreed upon to be their worst problem. And a newer, hotter Canadian counterpart was emerging: Sum 41, led by a spiky haired Deryck Whybley. Though their debut EP Half Hour of Power
had made some waves, it was the lead single off of the appropriately-titled All Killer, No Filler
, "Fat Lip" that introduced them to the world. They were basically their own genre; a mix of punk rock, pop rock, heavy metal and even rap at times. People were quick to categorize them as "punk", but that seems like such a lazy categorization, especially when they proudly announced in said lead single that "Maiden and Priest were the gods that we praised!". Their next two albums, Does This Look Infected?
would only build upon these facets. The band went full-on metal mode on the latter, with the crushingly heavy opening riff of "We're All to Blame" being recognizable to almost anyone who listened to rock radio. Simply put, Sum 41 were exactly what was needed to keep kids blasting loud heavy music in their cars, and piss off the parents of suburban white kids who had similarly frosted tipped spiky hair, who refused to do their homework and ate every inch of their Fruit By the Foot at once.
And then the year 2004 came around. And just after the release of Chuck
, Green Day came back, out of nowhere, with the album that forever defined music in the 2010s: American Idiot
. It wasn't just any pop punk album either- it was their Quadrophenia
, a teenage fantasy about rebellion, anarchy and life. It broke the sales charts, kept music retailers in business, and put a band in danger of being irrelevant back on the map. It was to them what Brave New World
was to Iron Maiden. And sadly, Chuck
's success was stunted as a result of this. So Sum 41, after a fair bit of touring, took a break, parted with a fellow band member ("Brownsound"- often seen as an integral part of the band), and after a while came up with a plan to take the Green Day route.
The only problem? It was 2007. Nobody cared about pop-punk unless your name was Panic! at the Disco, Relient K, or Fall Out Boy, both bands releasing airwave-shattering albums that were seen as integral to the decade's sound. Conversely, My Chemical Romance were still riding on the success of The Black Parade
, and Emo and Metalcore were becoming the topical genres. People had stopped caring about American Idiot
, and Green Day themselves had long moved on from it, with Billie Joe Armstrong and the boys already hard at work on their next rock opera. But for some reason, Sum 41 wasn't willing to take no for an answer. And so in the summer of that year, lead single "Underclass Hero" was singled out. And admittedly, it wasn't much different than what people were used to hearing. It achieved moderate success, and things appeared to be going fine. The problem? If The Sums were hoping that this would tease a more "political" and "in your face" direction... well, this wasn't it. In fact, here's a lyrical snippet:
We're the saints of degeneration
We don't owe anyone an explanation
fuck elitists; we don't need this
We're the elite of 'just alright'
Nothing particularly offensive or bad, but it doesn't sound any different from "Fat Lip". And sadly, if you were hoping for this to carry over into the rest of the album... well, fat chance. In fact, the rest of the album completely forgets about the "political" direction they were hoping to achieve. In fact, maybe three other songs talk about politics. The rest... as you guessed it, is typical Sum 41 fare. Another problem is that musically, the album fails to reflect this- it's their poppiest yet.
So what is
there to talk about, musically? "Walking Disaster" is an admittedly decent tune. It's typical Sum 41 fare, and save for its cringe-worthy "I'm a teenager and nobody understands me" lyrical content, it could pass for a decent piece of Chuck
filler. Things don't really rear their ugly head, however, until "Count Your Last Blessings", a U2-style anthem about drug abuse and the personal problems that Deryck Whybley had suffered at the time. And while it's hardly bad, it's a boring piece of pop balladry that even Coldplay, when they were in their "boring" phase, would have thought about twice before using as a B-side.
And then, this is where things truly start to stink.
Tonal imbalance is a major problem on this record. And right here is where we get a disposable "funny" song, "Ma Poubelle" (literally french for "My Garbage Can"). Never mind Whybley's Matt Bellamy-tier "French", the song is an absolute disaster and probably one of the worst things I've heard from Sum 41... and possibly ever. A piece of cabaret sung in disastrous sounding French, calling your lover a garbage can may have been funny back in your "young and dumb" days, but on a self-professed "maturity album" it's just unwelcome and hideous. Things don't get better when the band begin the first of a series of ill-advised political anthems, "March of the Dogs". The song could almost pass for a parody of American Idiot
, with its opening line of "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the united states of America... is dead!" but the song is completely stone-faced, self unaware and takes itself so seriously that one needs eye surgery from the sheer amount of eye rolling done in 3 minutes. "The Jester" is next, hardly distinguishable from the last, and at this point, the album completely fails to distinguish itself from any other album at the time... let alone, any other attempt at musical protest. If either political tune is comparable to anything, it's not American Idiot
- rather, Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire", similarly ill-concieved.
So what's left of the album? A series of slower, almost ballad type tracks. There's been speculation that "So Long, Goodbye" is written for "David Baksh, but the song is dull and simply goes in one ear and out the other, so it's hard to tell. Hardly any song here is worth mentioning because they all sound the god damn same
. Wait... there's a hidden track! Nah, it's just a boring piece of acoustic pop named "Look at Me", and you guessed, doesn't sound any different from the tracks that came before it.
Usually, when I listen to these types of albums, I spend quite a bit of time before reviewing them trying to find out exactly what went wrong, and what caused the album to be their creators' death warrant. But upon even one listen to Underclass Hero
, it's immediately clear: Sum 41 went from trend-setters to copycats
. It simply became hard to care about them anymore, because they were no longer interested in finding new ways to surprise us. And if their next album in line, Screaming Bloody Murder
, was any indication, they were officially done with it. Said album came out, flopped, and the band went under again
until something of a comeback in 2016.
And if a listen to their latest single is any indication... well, it seems to be working well.
FAILURE, FIASCO, or SECRET SUCCESS: