Review Summary: Outside of a few folksy cuts, OK Orchestra is no more inspired than the rest of AJR's sterile, infantile output, and only a little less annoying.
AJR's fourth studio album OK Orchestra begins with a narrator presenting the sound of the album's drums, then one of Ryan Met's vocal melodies, before presenting the sound of said drums turning into said melody. It is a demonstration of instrument morphing, a production technique that shows up throughout OK Orchestra. This kind of on-its-face acknowledgement of the artifice of the band being present only to highlight their glee at discovering a production trick the band thinks is new or inventive is present throughout AJR's discography. For years now, the band has been tagged with occupying a space in music that hits the “no” button in many listeners' brains despite their attempts at becoming inescapable pop stars that anyone can enjoy. If the band's love of their own arrested development isn't their biggest calling card, it's their insistence on trying to be the most relatable pop group through their more indie-centric tendencies, even as they completely miss the appeal of outsider music.
But if there's one thing I can say for OK Orchestra before I even start, it's that their timing couldn't have been better. Much of the music industry was shaken up by That Big World Event. Ghost is one of many bands that just won't release an album until they can tour again. Taylor Swift had to retreat to indie folk because stadium pop couldn't exist without stadiums. Oliver Tree flat out quit because of coronavirus (he got better). But AJR, being stuck inside their New York apartment? Business as usual, baby. In fact, that may be the biggest problem with OK Orchestra; it is the most rote and predictable album of their career.
Technically speaking, there are “wtf!?” moments in the instrumentation, but even those just feel muted and boring now. The overture, as with their past two albums, throws a bunch of recurring motifs in the album right at the start and they all disappear into this collage of synthesized and sampled noise. Aside from being longer than the last couple of intros, it's just not a shock to hear anymore. As stated, it is a vehicle for one of this album's production trademarks: instrument morphing, blending one instrument playing the same riff into another, making it sound alien, yet seamless all the same. And it's not a bad trick, but it's also not enough of a motif to sustain an album, both because it's not weighty enough within itself and it's never used to poetically amplify the album's themes or anything like that. It's just...an idea.
Lead single Bang!, as annoying as it is, might be the best pop moment on the album, because even between its nonsensical digressions about quinoa and doing taxes, or the sampled train line announcer butting in, it at least has an identifiable hook. On the flipside, I have no idea why Way Less Sad, the most recent single as of now, got the push that it did because the progression of the song is rote, predictable and monotonous. The chords feel like they never change, it's easy to guess what every vocal passage is going to sound like before you hear it...and the horn line has in fact been heard before (Simon and Garfunkel's My Little Town). Deeper cuts like Joe or The Trick suffer even further; The Trick kicks off with a swingtime-sounding vocal passage, but it just never really goes anywhere.
If anything does make OKO compositionally identifiable, it's the transparent references to children's nursery rhymes, because true to form, AJR do not want to let go of their childhoods. Sometimes you can vaguely see the outlines of how the melodies tie into the band's overall mood, but just because they clarify the band's intent doesn't make listening to them compelling. Humpty Dumpty's sing-song flow is childish, but not necessarily to the point of annoying precociousness. But there isn't even an attempt to make the lyrical theme of the verses work with the chorus, which...well, the song title gives a clue. It's weird this basically happens again with Way Less Sad and its “counting sheep, but the sheep died” bridge.
Not to belabour the point either, but flipping from composition to instrumentation, the album again fails to deliver any real shocks. Granted, however, it does make the package a bit less annoying than before. The Click had the effect of a bunch of foghorns blaring at once, with vocals pitch-shifted everywhere you heard them and no end of dubstep wubs or 808s. Neotheater was a lot less smothering even though it used a lot of chopped and screwed samples, and OKO's disparate instances of noisy production have been toned down even further. The mixing just feels a lot better, but there's still an overall syrupy quality to the music which makes it as drab as it is annoying. The first leg of the album features a lot of “hazy 50s nostalgia” aesthetics, 3 O'Clock Things opening with a doo-wop sample filtered even further, and later song Joe kicking off with a ragtime piano solo. But just as soon as this smothering atmosphere appears, it fades away, to be replaced with synth horns that sound like crap next to all the sampled brass on the album, or yet more instances of instrument warping.
Ordinaryish People, featuring the Blue Man Group, is the one instance of the “hardcore hip-hop” promised us in the press releases, again opening up with a blown-out horn sample meant to sound like the music of a hundred years ago, which presses forward into a high energy DOOM-esque beat. Even by the standards of AJR, it is incredibly hokey, as is the sudden electronica breakdown in the middle of Christmas In June, which completely ruins an otherwise salvageable song. Other moments on the album only sound out of place within the context of the wider musical landscape, but otherwise are standard fare for AJR, such as Bummerland's marching band beat and woofer-destroying bass. Like, I guess it kind of sounds like Sleigh Bells if you look at it sideways, but not really.
Lyrically, the band has gone from consciously swimming in their own privilege to just being bland and repetitive. 3 O'Clock Things might be the stupidest song of their career, though, featuring one non-sequiter verse after the other, each highlighting the band's social ignorance. The first set of lines posits that if it weren't for college, Ryan could have just as easily gotten his education from YouTube; but if he had done that, he would have had to deal with comments, and would have spent his money on products featured in YouTube ads, which is money that could have gone right back to college. Much like Neotheater's Beats, it is a ridiculous concept that is self-evidently pointless. But even that doesn't compare to the final lines of the song claiming that you have to be a fence sitter to make it in music, before saying “if you're a f*cking racist, don't come to our show.” Racism is bad, using your platform to denounce it is fine, but the song has this huge build-up and the delivery basically implies this is the song where AJR are putting their careers on the line by saying this. Usually, musicians in the public eye lose an audience for being racist, not gain it.
The thing is, there are a few songs on here where it almost feels like AJR have something to latch onto, not least of which are the folksy “Americana” songs. The verses of My Play do speak to me somewhat as they illustrate the “I get along with Mum and Dad so why can't they get along with each other” perspective of a confused and sad child, but the way it transitions into the title thesis gives me whiplash, and again the melody is just too weak. The pure folk instrumentation of Adventure Is Out There, not to mention its fast tempo, hints at a decent Lumineers or Mumford knock-off let down by a vocal delivery that is just too slow. And again, Christmas In June is just destroyed by its electronic bridge, otherwise taking a legitimate shot at a holiday song just out of time. The highlight of the album is the song I personally expect to see cynics get annoyed at the most, World's Smallest Violin. And they wouldn't be wrong; the song is explicitly about the group's vanity within their sadness. But this moving beyond subtext is honestly refreshing, it's now a stable aesthetic choice rather than an accident. Plus the song features an actual build and climax, it sounds exciting. It's one of the band's few moments in their career where the songwriting, not the gimmicky instrumentation, sounds as adventurous as they want their lives to be.
Besides that, thematically, OKO is standard fare for the Mets. They'll sing about making the best of a bad situation on Way Less Sad, or they'll complain that having to do their taxes is the worst thing ever on Bang!. 3 O'Clock is the only particular digression in its lunatic comparisons between situations, but it is only in a matter of scale that it achieves this. A separate verse of the song features discussion of the band being eternally sexless while the rest of their high school friends were out drinking and screwing. “Maybe sex is overrated, but we're too shy to ever say it.”
To me, that line represents the artistic essence of AJR. Desperate for sex, but in love with their own virginity. Jealous of those who grew up properly, but revelling in their own childhoods. Yearning for mainstream relevancy, but clinging to their bedroom production habits, no matter how grating. Annoyed with the politics of those around them, but veiling all criticism of their own social ideals in distance and irony. AJR's sound was already pretty flat once you got past the bells and whistles, but OK Orchestra reveals a band that has so little to offer that a mere four albums in, they are spinning their wheels. Even following this band out of morbid curiosity feels a fool's errand; why would I follow the trajectory of a band that, in both style and substance, wants to stay right where they are?