Ed Sheeran – ÷ (Divide) 2017 (Album Review)

Ed Sheeran, the musical dynamo who stands as the mainstream poster child for the singer/songwriter “white guy with an acoustic guitar” genre, has released his third major label full-length album, ÷. Ed is acclaimed for his diversified styles, from upbeat hip-hop to syrupy sweet love ballads to campfire singalongs. His earnest lyricism and authentic intimacy is one of the many reasons to love this amiable redhead.

So what does this latest long-player have to offer?

÷ is a typical Ed Sheeran album, a mixture of those various approaches and then some. But unfortunately, ÷ plays it extremely safe, although he does tiptoe outside of his comfort zone on a few moments. This is his most noticeably commercial record to date, which thus sacrifices risk-taking and is ultimately underwhelming. After 2014’s phenomenal ×, touring the planet, and taking a year off social media, we set the bar high for Ed. We expected something more personal, something introspective and astonishing, but ÷ really does not meet those standards. It’s the same-old-same-old but yet not as stunning and gripping as his earlier material. Of course, ÷ is good; it’s not a terrible release by any means, but it certainly is disappointing in multiple categories.

First, the lyrics. At times, the libretto of this work can be profound and ardent, but most cuts either display the same tired-out romantic clichés from his prior albums or empty, dull subjects that simply don’t attest to his growth as a person since the last time we heard from him on ×. “Galway Girl” exhibits a night out at the pub, kissing an Irish girl and eating Doritos, and while this is down-to-earth and practical, is this really the height of Ed’s songwriting? Or “New Man” where Ed gives details of a stereotypical gym jock, someone we could easily picture and possibly put a name to of a similar person we know, and while this song is descriptive, is it really anything more than just scratching the surface? Or similarly, “Shape of You,” the most sexually charged yet undoubtedly catchiest song in the lineup. Or on tracks like “Happier” where Ed expresses some maturity by accepting an ex lover has moved on with someone new, but yet he ruins it all by stating at the end of the song he’ll still “be waiting here for [them].” We do manage to see some progression and communion on pieces like “Castle on the Hill” which describes Ed’s childhood and struggles of growing up and apart from old friends. The bonus track “Save Myself” is probably the most intimate, reflective tune on the album, which begs the question as to why it was merely tacked on as a bonus track. “Supermarket Flowers” is also one of the most personal and genuine songs where Ed recounts true events that occurred in his life.

EDIT: Ed Sheeran said in an interview with Zane Lowe that the reason why “Save Myself” was not included as an a-side tune was because the album had “too many slow songs.” Thus, the label requested that he swap “New Man” and “Save Myself” in the initial listing, making “New Man” a standard track and “Save Myself” a bonus track. This is understandable, and one must also consider that alongside the poignant ballads, Ed is known for his hip-hop-directed cuts, which ÷ lacked in some ways. Ed also mentioned that due to the rise of online music streaming services, bonus tracks still garner their deserved attention to an extent.

The musical assortment of this release is apparent when solely discussing the album, but compared to Ed’s past catalog, it is for the most part tale and trite. Hip-hop cuts like “New Man” and “Eraser” offer Ed’s clunky rap sequences and poor production quality. Sappy amorous ballads like “Perfect” and “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” feel disingenuous and unrealistic. (Of course, this is assuredly subjective; some fans adore his hip-hop moments and/or his mushy romantic articles, but I personally have never found them interesting.) The overt love serenades, swelling with passion, virtually come across as just an attempt to pull at your heartstrings, which seems exploitative to an extent. (And trying to mimic the success of “Thinking Out Loud.”) The only tolerable romantic nocturne is “How Would You Feel (Paean),” which is embellished by the delectable piano accompaniment.

EDIT: Ed Sheeran said in an interview with Zane Lowe that his main motivation for writing “Perfect” was to prove that he could write fabulous love songs on his own and outdo “Thinking Out Loud,” which he wrote with Amy Wadge. This bolsters my feelings of insincerity in Ed’s latest songwriting.

However, pieces like “Castle on the Hill” and “Galway Girl” do illustrate some sonic variation not typically discovered on his previous albums. (With the exception of the stellar “English Rose” from ×, which is quite overlooked if you ask me.) “Castle on the Hill” follows in the bombastic vein of a Mumford & Sons-esque stadium epic, something new for Ed. “Galway Girl” and “Nancy Mulligan” find Ed exploring his near Celtic background and fondness for Ireland with an Irish band, something that truly stands out on this full-length. Bonus tracks like “Barcelona” and “Bibia Be Ye Ye” show him placing a toe outside his comfort zone with a more Latin leaning vibe, and he even roughly speaks Spanish on the former! Again, it’s a shame these tunes were attached as bonus material because it is the only minor evidence and incorporation of Ed’s travels across the globe. The impassioned love divertissements do offer some symphonic diversity with their orchestral inflections and female backing vocals, like on the soulful “Dive,” and Ed is cementing a somewhat unique sound with these timbres.

The easy accessibility and listenability of ÷ causes it to suffer in some ways. Ed’s pop sensibility seemingly dumbs down his trademark emotional contemplation and self-examination to appeal to a larger audience. The lyrics of this album plainly don’t punch the listener in the gut like his preceding projects did. He immolates auricular risk-taking over his traditional familiarity and generic acoustic timbre which has grown threadbare throughout his career. ÷ is not entirely atrocious or abominable by any degree, but it does not scrape the expectations we had set for him after his antecedent release, hiatus, and worldwide excursions. ÷ warrants a solid 6/10 for its lack of progression and variety, and I’ll personally only be revisiting a small handful of songs. (As opposed to my constant return to his full previous records!)

What are your thoughts on ÷? Let us know in the comments below!

  • Best songs: “Castle on the Hill,” “Save Myself,” “Dive,” “Supermarket Flowers,” “How Would You Feel (Paean)”
  • Worst songs: “Happier,” “New Man,” “Galway Girl,” “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here”

Panic! at the Disco – Death of a Bachelor 2016 (Album Review)

Man, this review has been a long time coming. Panic! at the Disco’s 2016 album Death of a Bachelor will be one year old next month, so we thought we might as well get around to reviewing it before then. Panic! at the Disco has been dwindled down to solely frontman Brendon Urie, a Las Vegas native who draws influences from his city and musical legends, such as Queen and Frank Sinatra. Panic! has taken on many different personas throughout the past decade-long career, shifting styles with every new album release from pop rock to The Beatles-inspired folk pop to Vaudeville to electronica. Panic! has done it all, but now with Urie remaining as the only true member, how does Death of a Bachelor shape up?

Well, Death of a Bachelor is like a bit of everything, which sounds great but not really. Every song sounds different, which I can commend Urie for incorporating variety, but it doesn’t make for an easy listen when the style is constantly transitioning. Death of a Bachelor is more of a collection of songs, and the songs are mostly decent on their own, but it’s not a cohesive, flowing record by any means. Overall, the full-length is plainly disheveled and does not age well over time. Honestly, the more I listen to this album, the more I never want to play it again.

Panic! has never had a distinct style, so for Death of a Bachelor to sound different than all their past projects is not a surprise. But the problem is that Panic!’s previous long-players have all had a distinct style of their own, whereas Death of a Bachelor is a messy amalgam of so many contrasting types. There isn’t one clear-cut genre I can label this album with. It’s not that I’m “afraid of difference and nonconformity” or “afraid of integrating various musical fashions;” it’s more that this album is a headache to listen through due to its incoherence and discord.

Look, like I said, the songs are generally pretty alright on their own, and ideally, Urie should’ve taken one or two similar sounding songs and expanded upon their particular style to create the album instead of mingling vastly differing musical categories. Nonetheless, even most of the songs on Death of a Bachelor have problems of their own. (Not to mention the terrible marketing behind issuing the full-length. Seriously, 6 out of 11 songs were pre-released in some way, meaning only 5 songs were actually delivered on the release date.)

Of course, there’s also a lot of other problems with Death of a Bachelor, (and some good things,) so let’s just take this track by track. The album opens with “Victorious,” an upbeat, entertaining party song. The production of this piece, (and most of the album,) is done extremely well, except the guitars seem very muted. Panic! always featured stellar guitar work, but since 2013’s album Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, which leaned heavily on electronic elements, the guitars have become more and more in the background with every new publication. “Victorious” is simply a feel-good party anthem, and there isn’t much to dig into in terms of lyrical content. The vocal melodies on this song are, well, annoying? Urie has always been one of the better singers in the pop rock/emo alternative scene, and now as the only remaining member of Panic!, he seems to feel inclined to show off his operatic talent even more. However, when he aims to hit pitches in the upper register, it just kinda… hurts to listen to. I will applaud him for his skill, and also his musical abilities considering he supposedly accomplished all the instrumental efforts on this album himself, but sometimes the vocal refrains can be nerve-wracking and aggravating over time.

The next tune “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time” is another party canticle, but more toned down musically in terms of flair and glamour. Again, there isn’t much to comment on with such straightforward libretto, but sorry, I am gonna rip to shreds the “Rock Lobster” sampling. You know, it seems as if Brendon has been following a little too closely in the footsteps of his musical father-figure Fall Out Boy since 2013 when the Chicago band returned from their hiatus. Well, he’s always been under their wing since signing on to Pete Wentz’s record label in 2004, but now in recent years, the affinity and relative imitation has been more prevalent than ever. Brendon turned to the same producer of Fall Out Boy’s 2013 Save Rock and Roll to operate on Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, resulting in strikingly identical sounding records, and now “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time” incorporates the famous guitar riff from The B-52’s “Rock Lobster,” similar to Fall Out Boy’s implementation of The Munsters’ theme song in their hit “Uma Thurman.” Brendon also employed Jake Sinclair to help produce Death of a Bachelor, which unsurprisingly produced Fall Out Boy’s 2015 album, American Beauty/American Psycho. He also joined on board with Crush Management, the team behind Fall Out Boy. Come on, Brendon, you could at least be a bit more original…?

Anyway, the third piece on the album is “Hallelujah,” which was the first single released back in April of 2015. Similar to “Victorious,” “Hallelujah” does not age well and becomes irritating over time. Brendon focuses too much on showing off his vocal talent, resulting in a song that barely hits the 3-minute mark because he basically left out an entire chorus. The stripped-down closing tag should have been the pinnacle of the tune as the bridge section, but since it’s just thrown on at the end, it’s borderline forgettable and doesn’t pack the punch that it had the potential to. “Hallelujah” does actually stand out as the first decent song on the album so far in terms of lyricism and features a robust horn department. While Urie does coalesce horns all throughout the album, the styles in which they are utilized are exceedingly different.

brendon2

“Emperor’s New Clothes” is the fourth track and introduces computerized components even more, from the opening synthetic melody to the distorted voice inflections. The songwriting echoes Brendon’s rise to fame and now taking over the band name entirely for himself, hinting that Death of a Bachelor is basically “the end of eras,” i.e. Panic! before becoming Brendon’s solo career. (We’ll talk more about that later.) “Emperor’s New Clothes” also displays the horn section and hey, sometimes you can actually hear the guitars! However, the vocal performance is again bothersome and gloaty. The high notes are virtually unnecessary and exasperating. As much as I want to love this track, the lyrics ultimately turn me off personally considering how conceited Brendon comes across. (We’ll also talk more about that later as well.)

Remember when Brendon described “Death of a Bachelor” as a mix of Beyoncé and Frank Sinatra? Yeah, I do too, and I was excited, but this song is disappointing. The production quality is great and all, but the problem here is literally just Brendon Urie. I can’t stand the way he sings this song, it’s so over-the-top and bombastic. The same cancer has been infecting this entire album so far: the vocal melodies are simply annoying. I really want to like these songs, but Brendon’s choral performances just make me want to turn it off and delete it from my library. How much more conceited can you be with, “When you think of me/Am I the best you’ve ever had?” I thought we left this immature egotism in A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, which was slightly understandable in that time period because he wasn’t nearly 30 years old. Jesus, all I can say when I listen to “Death of a Bachelor” is, “Can you shut up?” Skip.

“Crazy = Genius” is the sixth piece on the record and is characterized by achingly simple guitar melodies but also an ear-catching horn section. This tune is the key swing article of Death of a Bachelor, which should have also been expanded upon alongside the style of “Hallelujah.” (If he had made a record based off these two songs, it might actually be prudent and listenable.) The lyricism of “Crazy = Genius” is moderately introspective when mentioning The Beach Boys’s Mike Love, Dennis, and Brian Wilson. Brian was the “genius” behind the ’60s sensation while Mike Love was against Wilson’s more innovative approaches. Yet, appropriately, Urie says he’ll “never be Dennis Wilson,” who began a solo career to continue the “beautiful, happy, spiritual music” The Beach Boys had originally created. Brendon says that “if crazy equals genius, then I’m a fucking arsonist, I’m a rocket scientist,” meaning he’s essentially insane enough to be a genius. Of course, that’s debatable considering how disarrayed this latest record is.

The seventh track is “LA Devotee,” which I surprisingly don’t have many issues with. “LA Devotee” is quite possibly the best piece on Death of a Bachelor, and even though the higher notes displayed in the chorus after the key change are a bit over Urie’s head, he peculiarly pulls them off exceptionally well. The song is an enjoyable and catchy ode to the Los Angeles city life with excellent songwriting in the lyrical department and balance of the organic instrumentation (brass section) with the electronic aspects. “LA Devotee” creates imagery of neon lights and desert skies, and this is exactly what we’ve been expecting from Death of a Bachelor. While Brendon discusses his recent marriage and “settling down” in many of the songs, this record also largely revolves around the party scene of the city, similar to “Vegas Lights” from its predecessor. “LA Devotee” stands as a testament to Urie’s descriptive lyricism and newfound spirit for having a night out on the town.

The next song, “Golden Days,” details the discovery of old Polaroids, allowing Brendon to examine the concept of time and aging. The verses of “Golden Days” are musically ominous and portentous, but the chorus is exciting and provocative, minus the vexatiously prolonged syllables of, “Golden days, golden days,” being repeated over and over. The theme of this piece is ultimately carpe diem, seizing the current moment and having fun in order to reminisce fondly on in the future. “Golden Days” is a revolt against “growing older” and is decisively one of the better tracks on the album, but it just doesn’t fit. Like I said, Death of a Bachelor is more of a collection of songs than a well-rounded record because “Golden Days,” for example, doesn’t flow with the jazzy vibe displayed earlier. Yes, it’s a decent song, but not a decent addition to the lineup so far.

“The Good, the Bad, and the Dirty” is enjoyable for its musicality with the blend of electronic ingredients and more natural apparatus, but the lyrical content is extremely confusing. Brendon, I gotta know, what the heck are you talking about? At first, I thought this song could be about how the original members of Panic! have all departed except Urie, (namely in the first verse,) but the second part of the first verse makes just about zero sense when coupled with the beginning part. Then the chorus kicks in, which doesn’t line up with either of the ideas that have been introduced so far. The second verse completes the theme highlighted in the first part of the first verse, but then the bridge does nothing else to complement it even further. I can commend “The Good, the Bad, and the Dirty” for its musical prospect, but the coherence of the actual songwriting is undetected.

The tenth song, “House of Memories,” is similar to “Golden Days” because it doesn’t fit! It’s a fabulous tune, from the earnest lyricism to the balance of instrumentation, except for Brendon’s straining vocals in the bridge. But “House of Memories” just can’t find a home on this record dominated by grandiloquence and jazz influences. “House of Memories” does begin to slow down the full-length and offers a reflective look at a conflicted writer torn between loving their current partner and finding themselves stuck on past sweethearts, painting the idea that he’s nearly afraid to get close in fear of being heartbroken yet again. This song is another one of the better tracks on Death of a Bachelor, but still certainly not Urie’s best work.

And finally, “Impossible Year” wraps up the album, but on a rather dismal note. While Urie does try to sell this track as emotional and heartfelt, it’s just a sad vocal imitation of Sinatra and incoherent lyrics. Honestly, “Impossible Year” falls flat on its face and is less than memorable. Urie’s lower octave is obviously not capable of such eloquence and simulation when he seems to lose touch with the deeper pitches. The musicality is a sudden turn that the album could have used more of to set up this abrupt transition, maybe another slower piano-based track earlier on would have helped buoyed this tune along instead of allowing it to just fall off into the pits of being forgettable and unexpected. The lyrics are more than likely outlining the withdrawing of past band members, considering the lines, “There’s no you and me/This impossible year/Only heartache and heartbreak,” are probably not illustrating Urie’s recent marriage. But his pretension undervalues the poignant candor of such lyrics by the piece simply acting as Brendon’s deficient stab at emulating Frank Sinatra.

Overall, Death of a Bachelor scores a 6/10. It’s not terrible, but it’s rudely disappointing. I did find myself coming back to a handful of these songs, but individually because they don’t jive well together, and I do tend to get some of the more enjoyable melodies stuck in my head. Brendon seems to focus too much on showing off his vocal ability rather than writing a coherent, well-rounded record. Look, Brendon, you’ll never be Frank Sinatra or Freddie Mercury. (That poor cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” gave me a disease.) If you wanna make a name for yourself, try pushing new boundaries and setting your own trends instead of ripping off other artists. *cough* Fall Out Boy. *cough*

Urie has a niche that works for him, and as much as I can respect artists stepping outside their comfort zones and trying new things, it just didn’t work on Death of a Bachelor. Brendon should plainly go solo and drop the Panic! name so his new albums can’t be compared to Panic!’s past work. I feel like I would have been somewhat more receptive or at least more understanding of it if it had been published as a solo project. It still would’ve have been a messy record, but at least I wouldn’t be able to say it’s not “a good Panic! album” because there is a standard carried with their name. It shows that Brendon is basically using the band’s name for recognition to garner more profit and publicity. For a guy who is so painfully full of himself, you would think he’d be more than happy to market his own name! My main issue with this record and Urie himself is just that: his obnoxious ego. (I mean, seriously, his Twitter bio says “35% talent, 65% water.” Like, do we really need a popular performer to rub his talent in our faces all the time?) It’s why most of the melodies on this album suffered, because Brendon was too concentrated on boasting his vocal skills than actually making something that sounds pleasant to the ears. Also, former bassist Dallon Weekes did not contribute creatively on Death of a Bachelor at all and was demoted solely to a touring member, which is essentially Brendon saying, “I want to do this record all by myself. It’s gonna be The Brendon Urie Show. I want it my way.” (No Sinatra pun intended.) So if he wanted this record to be his so badly, why didn’t he just begin a solo career with it? Sorry, Brendon, your attempt to be the “jazzy Fall Out Boy” is not a Panic! album in my book, and it’s the weakest full-length in their discography to date.

Hopefully Brendon’s and his fanbase’s inability to accept criticism (click here) won’t be lavished upon this review. I want to end this post with this: I am a huge Panic! at the Disco fan, mainly due to their first four long-players, but Death of a Bachelor really rubbed me the wrong way. I want to love this album, I really do, and I really tried, but it’s just not working for me personally. I’ll keep spinning their earlier records for as long as I can, but I just can’t bring myself to love this latest addition. I have hope that Brendon’s next project can make a comeback, however.

What do you think of Death of a Bachelor? Let us hear it in the comments below!

  • Best songs: “LA Devotee,” “House of Memories,” “Golden Days”
  • Worst songs: “Death of a Bachelor,” “Impossible Year,” “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time”

Set It Off – Upside Down 2016 (Album Review)

Set It Off showcases a diverse discography, from emo to pop rock and some strange mixes in between, yet it all flows together quite well. Their 2014 album Duality displayed the four-piece moving from their dramatic style (notably seen in their 2012 album Cinematics) to a more radio-friendly, upbeat pop rock tone. So where does their latest release Upside Down lead these musical chameleons?

Well, this new LP exhibits their poppiest work to date. And it’s not terribly a bad thing. Older fans who still cling to the fiery, gothic orchestral influences seen in Cinematics might not find themselves enjoying this new timbre, unless they are fans of pop music. Duality seemed to balance pop and rock outstandingly well, but Upside Down takes the pop side a step farther and the rock a step back.

The first taste we got of this new album was the lead single “Uncontainable.” “Uncontainable” brings all the vigor and energy we would expect from this lively group, but also introduces some new ideas, like a horn section. Horns were included in Upside Down‘s predecessor but now seem to be expanded upon all throughout this record. To say the least, in terms of style and lyricism, “Uncontainable” comes on as a knock-off Walmart brand version of Fall Out Boy’s “Irresistible.” It does bring its own flavor, though the similarities are undeniable.

The next single was “Something New,” which is also the opening track on the album. And rightfully so. The lyrics of this song detail SIO’s new approach and that they are moving towards a different sound. It does provide some cohesion between records, transitioning from the perfectly equitable pop rock of Duality to the poppier rock of Upside Down. Vocalist Cody Carson sings, “If there’s one thing in my life, That I’ve been fighting day and night, Well it’s the fear of changing nothing,” which depicts his struggle of doing the same style of music over and over. And fans can’t blame him. 8 years of emo pop rock can be fairly monotonous. However, does Upside Down prove to be any sort of improvement or step in the right direction?

As the record goes on, the poppy dance track “Life Afraid” really introduces a new trend with the tropical house inflections and buoyant bass lines. It also features the horns again to add a classy touch. However, after “Life Afraid,” which was the third single, the album starts going downhill. The remainder of the album can be summed up in one word: disappointing. Just when you think you might be getting to the good stuff, it simply lets the listener down. “Upside Down” tries to be a fun, sunshiney track, but comes across as a snooze-fest. There’s nothing monumental to point out or focus on. “Want” is a generic track with practically no true emotion, and the repetition of the word “want” starts to make it not sound like a real word at all. The song tries to be mysterious and edgy, but it’s ultimately forgettable. The guitar line of the chorus is excruciatingly plain with not much to dig into. There are slight flares of string instrumentation, but it’s not worth listening through the song just to hear SIO utilizing one of their trademark styles. The verses feel overly barren, and this statement also goes for the next track, “Diamond Girl.” … There’s not much else to say about this track other than it’s simplistically transparent and slightly ’80s inspired. Up next on the tracklist is “Tug of War,” which is actually an interesting tune to listen to. The percussion and actual use of guitars does offer some sprightliness in the middle of this catnap record.

And now back to the doze. “Admit It” sounds like a b-side from Fall Out Boy’s American Beauty/American Psycho, and the left-field rap sequence, half-hearted lyricism, and lazy guitar work doesn’t make it any better. “Hypnotized” attempts to pack a punch, but the verses are still musically parched and the out-of-place rapping doesn’t exactly hit it home.
Opening up with a spirited guitar melody, “Never Know” actually stands out as one of the only deep cuts on this record. Arguably the least poppy piece, “Never Know” exhibits a dynamic chorus that truly grabs your attention, unlike the disheveled lullabies before it. “Crutch” follows in that vein, however, and is a bore to make it through. There’s really nothing to pick out about it. “Me w/o Us” tries to suffice as the album’s heartfelt ballad, but it’s just another impassive performance that doesn’t end the LP on any kind of high note.

Overall, Upside Down isn’t a completely terrible record, but it also isn’t a good one, especially in terms of Set It Off standards. These guys have proven on past projects that they truly have musical ability, but this latest release doesn’t expand those talents or push any boundaries. Yes, Set It Off did “something new” by incorporating elements of pop, but there’s nothing groundbreaking or even interesting about it. There’s very little life after the first three tracks, with the exception of the rare deep cuts buried under the monotonous snores of this slumber party. The lyrics seem void of any true feeling, and Cody Carson’s delivery doesn’t do it any justice either. Carson’s performance at times seems over-accentuated, like he was trying too hard to show off his skill, but it just doesn’t match up with the blandness of the topics. Ultimately, Upside Down scores a 5.5/10. As a long-time Set It Off fan, I am quite personally disappointed, but from the perspective of an outside, first-time listener who enjoys pop, this album wouldn’t be entirely reprehensible. For me, I’ll keep spinning Duality over this any day.

  • Best songs: “Never Know,” “Tug of War,” “Life Afraid,” “Something New”
  • Worst songs: All the other ones

Young the Giant – Home of the Strange 2016 (Album Review)

Young the Giant returns with their third album to beautifully fuse modern rock and indie influences into one boisterous masterpiece. With splotches of electronic clout, 2016’s Home of the Strange blends into an amalgam of cultured lyricism and savory musicianship. From pungent riffs to melodic strains, this album should “keep spinning on repeat” for a long time to come.

Lead singer Sameer Gadhia’s finespun voice cascades over soft rain and balmy acoustic diapasons featured on “Titus Was Born” and velvety refrains found in “Art Exhibit,” but Sameer can also unleash a barrage of thunderous vocals on tracks like “Something to Believe In” and “Jungle Youth” that are enough to rattle arenas. “Silvertongue” proves to be an upbeat display of debauchery, and “Nothing’s Over” offers a danceable bass cadence near the end of the album. More delectable, mellow tunes include “Elsewhere” and “Repeat,” and the buoyant “Mr. Know-It-All” wears inflections of bluesy, sanguine effects on its sleeve. The opening and closing numbers, “Amerika” and “Home of the Strange” respectively, provide an atmosphere for political matters involving immigration to the United States and give the five-piece group a dynamic platform in the current heated election race.

Home of the Strange has a little something for everyone, much like the cultural melting pot of America. Between interesting instrumentation, clamorous anthems, and explosive electronic elements, Young the Giant’s third album is sure to find a home in your music library. Overall, this long-player ranks in at a 9.5/10, certainly one of the most well-rounded albums in Young the Giant’s discography and best albums of 2016.

5 Seconds of Summer – Sounds Good, Feels Good 2015 (Album Review)

5sossgfgThe not-so-teenage heartthrobs of 5 Seconds of Summer are back at it again with their sophomore full-length release, Sounds Good, Feels Good. 2014 was a fantastic year for the boys from Australia, and 2015 did have some high points as well. But did their latest album live up to expectations and popular success of their self-titled debut?

Sounds Good, Feels Good is a more mature portrayal of 5SOS, even if releasing just one year after their previous album. Their long-playing debut was published during a transitional period of the young men’s lives where they were more than likely already beginning to grow out of those sentiments of “teenage memories” (“Kiss Me, Kiss Me”) and their mothers still driving them to school (“18”). Some would say they grew up too fast, but it was going to happen eventually. SGFG touches on deeper topics than just late nights listening to Green Day (“Long Way Home”) and being stuck in the friend zone (“Heartbreak Girl”).

The album is practically divided into three sections according to lyrical content and themes. (Deluxe Edition)

  1. Tracks 1-4 Socioeconomic standards, financial struggles, and fitting in
  2. Tracks 5-12 Heartbreak, broken relationships, and “starting again”
  3. Tracks 13-17 Wanting to be in a better place, nostalgic reminiscence

The first four tracks are similar in the sense that they all discuss societal principles and nonconformity. “Money,”  the opener of the album, is a bridge to help listeners transition from the sound of their prior album to the new, more polished yet grittier sound of SGFG. However, “Money” is low in lyrical depth. It is energetic and fun-filled, but does not have anything terribly memorable or something to connect to. Next, the lead single “She’s Kinda Hot” really shows some newfound maturity in both lyrics and musicianship. The structure of the song is not the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus you would have expected to hear. The song features some surprising guitar solos and instrumental breaks that can’t be described as anything less than killer. The lyrics also prove some maturation, discussing mental health, higher education, and bohemianism. The chorus alone is a misfit’s dream anthem, shouting, “They say we’re losers and we’re alright with that, We are the leaders of the not-coming-back’s, But we’re alright though,” with pop-punk angst and deviant acceptance oozing from each chanting line. With some help from the Madden Brothers, “She’s Kinda Hot” is like a more seasoned “Social Casualty” from their original debut, and is definitely a stand-out song. The third track “Hey Everybody!”, also with assistance from the Madden Brothers, follows with the same mentality of societal expectations, but this time with a more economic impression, detailing common struggles young people may experience, but delivering the hopeful reminder that one can always turn that around. The track samples the famous guitar riff from Duran Duran’s 1982 hit “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and executes it quite well, especially with Calum Hood’s bass work. The vocals in the verses satisfyingly blend together, from Ashton Irwin’s backup harmonies to Michael Clifford’s tinge of grunge. The lyrical flow of the verses are also pleasing, and the chorus comes across again as another anthem, exclaiming to the masses, “Hey everybody! We don’t have to live this way!” The final track of this section is “Permanent Vacation,” which you can already tell by the title what this song is probably about. This song examines the “frustration” and “desperation” of having zero motivation to make anything of one’s future in the world of “9 to 5” jobs and “corporations,” following again in line with the discordance of societal standards. The lyrics are riddled with words ending in -ation, and while clever, the only pitfall occurs in the bridge when Michael touches on “corporations” and “calculations.” This idea of opposing big business certainly begs to be expanded upon more, but in the time frame of a pop-rock jam, a lecture on the unhealthy financial state of most first-world countries was not essential. However, these ideas do show some more wisdom and advancement for the boys. The track musically showcases their ability to create an ebullient and fervent piece while still keeping the lyrics applicable and relatable.

The second section of SGFG moves into some darker themes, such as broken relationships and attempting to piece things back together. The fifth track of the album, “Jet Black Heart,” displays some emo parallels to the mid-2000s, and actually revitalizes those concepts quite adequately. The musical aspect of this track alone proves some further maturation of 5SOS, as well as vocals, especially from Michael who acts as the band’s grungiest voice. The song outlines a broken connection, but the bridge swells and solidifies the idea that it can always “start again.” This track definitely stands out, and many listeners will be able to connect to it even years down the road. “Catch Fire,” written with Alex Gaskarth of All Time Low, samples, um, lyrics to the United States national anthem? But it blends so well! In fact, the anthem allows the idea of sacrifice and the imagery of catching fire to be embellished. The bouncy beat and distorted guitars enriches the entire listening experience; this track is just a joy to the ears. The lyrics follow suit with the theme of seeking to fix broken relationships, however accepting that maybe things won’t work out after all, as in “Maybe I’ll change your mind.” Keyword: maybe. Overall, “Catch Fire” is a generally solid track. “Safety Pin,” the next track on the album, introduces the notion of pinning “broken hearts back together,” a depiction of this section’s theme as a whole. The lyrics in this piece feel somewhat discombobulated at times, shifting from repairing broken relationships to raising middle fingers at the world for thinking they are “twisted.” However, these two mesh together with the idea that the characters of this melodrama are both social outcasts, and this is where the first couple sections of the album meet. A long, drawn-out bridge, echoed again after the final chorus, fuels this song with even more energy and spirit. The eighth piece, “Waste the Night,” almost sounds like a Taylor Swift b-side, but with a grungy influence. While the chorus is exceedingly repetitive, it jives well with the sentiment being conveyed and emphasizes the importance the author feels to not letting themselves waste the night. Luke Hemmings’s emotional vocals tie these components together as well, especially displayed in the pre-chorus and bridge. The elongated I does seem strange at first, but after the initial few appearances, it does begin to blend well. There’s a particular ambience achieved throughout the track, maybe thanks to Ashton’s appropriate percussion or the atmospheric production wrapping it all together. It ends with a mellow interlude, which is somewhat haphazardly thrown in to the mix. It concludes “Waste the Night” favorably, but doesn’t really complete or introduce any big ideas.

The next track, “Vapor,” opens with more atmosphere and repetitive lyrics, but on a smaller scale than its predecessor. This track features a stellar vocal performance from Michael, great mixture of Calum and Luke’s voices on the second verse, and Ashton’s outstanding drumming does add to the aura. “Vapor” is also characterized by the orchestral strings, increasing the emotional attitude of this composition. On a lyrical level, the speaker asks their counterpart to lie to them just to make things last, detailed by a somewhat oxymoron that concludes the chorus with “Look in your eyes and know just what you meant, So lie to me, just lie to me,” and is later mentioned again in the bridge with “You make it sound so sweet, When you lie to me.” Interpret this as you may. “Castaway,” the eleventh track, is quite powerful, opening with a punching “Oh-oh-oh” hook. The pre-chorus build and then sudden silence except for Luke’s voice leads to a vigorous hit to begin the strong chorus, filled with meandering guitar riffs and robust percussion. More impassioned choral exhibitions truly accentuate the emotional toll depicted in this track, describing a “sinking ship” of a relationship and how it will never be saved. This track barely follows in step with the idea of repairing shattered relationships, only enumerated in the single line, “I’m trying to hold on,” showing that the speaker is at least making efforts to stop the heartbreak from transpiring. Overall, this track is fiery and energetic, which then takes a turn when the next song, “The Girl Who Cried Wolf,” begins. This song might at first sound like a whiny teenage melodrama, but it proves otherwise. From the somber request for eye contact to the heart-pounding bridge, this track is more than just some sappy acoustic ballad. The bridge has been described as Radiohead-esque with exaggeration and profusion, and it crescendos into the final chorus. Ultimately, this tune evokes that same sentiment of recovering damaged relationships by saying, “I’m not leaving,” epitomizing the speaker’s desire to fix things. The next track, “Broken Home,” is probably one of the most personal and relatable on the album. “Broken Home” paints the picture of a rocky relationship between parents, and this is a very realistic problem that many listeners have connected with. In the band, Ashton has most notably connected with this song considering his parents are separated and his father is absent in his life. Luke was hesitant to sing on this track because he wanted it to be a very intimate, personal message and he has never dealt with those complications before. It’s surprising that Ashton didn’t contribute vocally on this track much at all. However, the vocal performances still deliver and the song is quite the emotional exploration. There is a sense of hopefulness in the musicality of the bridge, which points to the main theme of the section of the album. It is definitely one of the best songs of this release, if not their entire career, and it’s a shame it’s technically classified as a bonus track.

5sos8

The final section of SGFG begins with the promotional single “Fly Away.” This song is sprightly and just plain enjoyable to listen to. From the “Na na na” hook to the aggressive guitar riffs, this song is an absolute pop-rock jam. It really proves the boys have been on tour, from London to California to New York, recounting the imagery and wistfulness of each location and the oceans in between. This song kicks off the concluding section of the album by introducing the idea of longing to be in a better place, to escape the monotony of everyday life and turmoil. This mentality is expanded upon in the fourteenth track “Invisible.” This track takes on a slower pace and creatively opens with what is believed to be the sound of keys ticking on a typewriter. Calum expressively executes the vocals and is assisted by the operatic strings carrying him and the song on. This is one of the most melancholy tunes on the album, and the narrator questions themselves, saying they feel invisible and how they can’t escape the walls they’ve built around them. This song intertwines with the idea of yearning to be in a more desirable place  through the sense of wanting to escape and leave; “I can’t escape, It’s too late,” and “I was already missing before the night I left.” The second verse introduces this section’s mood of nostalgia, “Dreaming of the times I know I can’t get back,” and this mood will be seen again later on. The next track is “Airplanes.” “Airplanes,” mostly lead by Michael, is an enormous piece, showered with heavy guitar melodies and an awesome solo in the bridge. This displays their incredible musical ability and the astonishing production quality, and their musicianship is also highlighted by the use of 3/4 time. This track also embodies the idea of becoming a better person and leaving behind past problems, like in the lines “I don’t ever wanna wait for this, I believe that I was made for this, I won’t fade into dark,” and “I’ve got something to prove, nothing to lose.” While this track is a masterpiece, it’s not something most listeners will find themselves consistently rocking out to on a lyrical level as it is a track you almost have to be in the right mood for. Nonetheless, it is still remarkably solid. The next track, “San Francisco,” takes a turn from those glorious electric guitars and trades them instead for some acoustic assonance. Although acoustic, this song still has some punch with enticing percussion and swelling symphonic strings. Calum does exceedingly well on this track vocally, and Michael shines during the bridge. The boys are assisted by female vocalists Bonnie McKee and Sarah Hudson, which offers a pleasant touch to emphasize the nostalgic anecdote of a past relationship. This song fits into the sentiment of longing to be in a more preferable place, especially one of the past, and recollecting those memories of “summer nights” and smells of perfume. “San Francisco” truly offers some great, descriptive imagery, although lacking in the first half of the bridge where it almost feels like they became a bit slothful or out of ideas when writing the song. The track then closes with another interlude which seems to go nowhere, again not closing out any big statements or announcing new ones. However, a somewhat larger statement is illustrated in the final track “Outer Space/Carry On.” “Outer Space” almost feels like an infantile “Bohemian Rhapsody” with its theatrical instrumentation and attitude. While it has charisma, it is still not anything absolutely jaw-dropping. The sudden monumental chorus is, well, grandiose, and accomplished very well. The song ultimately sounds a bit spasmodic, shifting from one style to another while still remaining cinematic, extravagant, and a little pretentious, echoing the aforementioned legendary Queen hit. That’s one downfall of “Outer Space,” it’s trying to be legendary and it just doesn’t hit the mark entirely. I will give it to them, it is very marvelous and bombastic, but a little too histrionic. Lyrically, the song does rightfully fall into this section of the album because of its reminiscence of past relationships and bitter nostalgia. The track transitions into the sound of crashing waves, and slowly “Carry On” arises. Though only a minute and a half long, “Carry On” is honestly one of the most solid and introspective tracks on the album. It almost seems reflective of the band’s maturation, saying “outlast the ignorance” and “survive the innocence.” It is promising to hear that it’s “gonna get better,” whether 5SOS is referring to the struggles of life or even their musical ability and career. The vocal harmonies are noteworthy and I’d love to hear more tracks similar to this, stripped and raw, with that tired voice of Luke and sparkling ambience. “Carry On” is conclusively the best track to end the album.

Overall, 5 Seconds of Summer proves that their musical career isn’t just for radio attention and sugary teenage anthems. Sounds Good, Feels Good manifests their newfound maturity, looking past the simple strife of high school and showcasing real life issues that listeners can connect with for years to come. These songs will stay in the playlists of fans for a long time, and the album is essentially very well-crafted for long-term listening. These boys young men have impressively demonstrated their songwriting and musical talent in their sophomore release, and as a 5SOS fan, I couldn’t been any more proud of them. While there are some weak points on this album, it is generally an extraordinary presentation that is fun and also serious, a perfect balance of what 5SOS personifies. 8.5/10!