Wednesday, November 6, 2013

album review: 'word of mouth' by the wanted

Back before I was doing video reviews, back before I had my blog, back in 2011, I reviewed the new albums from two aspiring boy bands, One Direction and The Wanted. Both were rising stars on the American charts with their respective songs, 'Glad You Came' and 'What Makes You Beautiful'. Both hailed from England, and were poised to take North America by storm...

And that didn't happen. Despite the occasional single propelled through the charts for a single week (before crashing and burning), One Direction were the band that made the largest musical impact, seemingly leaving The Wanted to fizzle out on the other side of the pond. For a guy who was expecting a repeat of the TRL boy band wars of the late 90s, I was puzzled by the seeming lack of conflict and why The Wanted didn't seem to build the same audience. Well, if I were to hazard a guess, I think it would come down to two things: one, the marketing power behind One Direction and their highly devoted cult of fans (drawn because One Direction are perversely good at appealing to the deepest insecurities of their fanbase); and two, The Wanted came across as distinctly more mature, a little older and a little slicker, despite the content of their material being roughly analogous to that of their rivals. And in 2012, with silly teen pop music only getting dumber, sillier, and less mature, The Wanted taking themselves as seriously as they did probably wasn't the best move. It also really didn't help matters that Nathan Sykes, one of their better singers, had to take time off because of throat surgery - thankfully he recovered and was able to sing on Ariana Grande's album, but it couldn't have helped The Wanted's momentum going forward.

But now they are back with a new album - and apparently their marketing team continues to hate them because this week they're facing down the twin debuts of Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP 2 and Lady Gaga's ARTPOP (which I will get to, give me time). Compared with One Direction, who have their new release later this month and aren't facing, well, any competition, this doesn't look good for The Wanted. And yet, I won't hesitate to make the argument that I actually like The Wanted more than One Direction. Now that's not saying much  - neither Justin Timberlake or The Backstreet Boys have anything to worry about here - but The Wanted are opting for a slightly older audience and seem to be trying to emulate The Backstreet Boys' appeal circa Millennium and Black & Blue. So with that in mind, I picked up their newest album Word Of Mouth, a long-delayed album recorded over the course of two years with singles being released as early as a year and a half ago. I have to be honest, I wasn't expecting anything close to good here - was I wrong?

Well, a little bit, because this album is pretty good. I wouldn't say it's anything close to great, but it's serviceable, it passes the time well, and it's seldom objectionable. Are there problems with this album? Oh, definitely, but they're the kind of problems that are both manageable and expected when you have an album that had as many delays as this one did. Honestly, it's a bit of a shame this album didn't really build any momentum outside of devoted fans, because there's a fair amount to like about it in unexpected places. 

For example, most critics like to crap all over boy bands for poor songwriting and lyrics that really don't stand up under any sort of scrutiny - and occasionally, they have a fair point. But as with their previous album, the songwriting courtesy of the The Wanted and their handlers is surprisingly strong and shows a lot more imagination that you'd expect from a band in their archetype. Yes, there is definitely some cheesiness - the entire song 'Walks Like Rihanna' plays as incredibly silly (referencing current pop culture only hopelessly dates your material, even if you're Eminem and taking shots at it), particularly considering how serious the band seems to be delivering it - but I can't deny that songs like 'Show Me Love (America)', 'Love Sewn', 'Demons', 'Heartbreak Story', and 'Everybody Knows' show a fair amount of nuance and surprising depth in their writing. Most of this is a product of smartly chosen scope - the band doesn't overreach when it comes to their subject matter, instead innovating in the presentation of that subject matter with interestingly crafted metaphors and symbolism. And it definitely helps matters that the technical songwriting is really far better than it has any right to be, with well-structured rhymes and solid poetry. Sure, there are moments of simplicity that are required by the constraints of the club-dance music genre, but not as many as you might think.

And really, what's frustrating is that for as consistently good as the lyricism is, the instrumentation is a mixed bag. Sure, the production is strong and it knows when to ease off on the autotune when it's not needed and let some real vocal texture shine through, but the instrumental direction is at best incoherent. This is a problem you run into when assembling an album over the course of a few years, especially a pop album and even more especially between 2011 and 2013, where the club boom collapsed in upon itself and hasn't really been replaced yet. So thus you get a bunch of club beats that sound imported from 2011 and don't really land with a lot of substance juxtaposed against typically modern bombast and finally a style of baroque chamber pop that's veers suspiciously close to indie pop territory minus the reverb. And while the band puts far more effort into the club-influenced music, I'm not going to lie and say that the more classically-inspired pop music, with strings sections and some real dramatic flair could have been really interesting if further developed. It's not really a sound that a boy band has ever embraced, and it lent The Wanted some real gravity that does a lot for elevating their lyrics. Now I don't want to oversell the directional shift - the instrumentation is still largely synthetic and the producers clearly aren't as familiar with chamber pop as a genre - but it was definitely worth noting. A bigger problem here is a lack of great instrumental hooks and melody lines - even if they were simple, they'd be preferable to homogeneous club beats that aren't really idiosyncratic enough to stick out.

And this brings us to The Wanted themselves, and here's where we run into some frustrating territory - because in terms of traditional boy bands, they don't have a typical construction, at least in terms of the vocals. Most of them are in the baritenor range or lower, and the choice to let some vocal texture through does a fair bit to distinguish the boys (the accent helps too), but here two big problems emerge. The first is in vocal dynamics - there's a reason why acts like N'Sync and The Backstreet Boys had a wide range of singers from baritones to high tenors - it lends character to the band and gives them options in the harmonies. And while the vocal texture is welcome, it does reveal other issues with their vocal delivery, mostly seen in stretching to hit notes at the upper end of their range and some godawful falsetto, neither of which would be necessary if they had a tenor who could comfortably hit the notes. But since so many members of The Wanted fit within a similar range, we don't really get those harmonies - or, indeed many incidents where the band members sing as a unit at all, not even on all of the choruses. I counted maybe three or four moments on this nineteen song deluxe album where they sang in harmony - and to me, that's just wasteful!

This leads to the second problem - while there is more vocal texture, it can get hard to distinguish personalities from the various members when so many of them share the same range and are all trying to be 'the cool one'. The bigger problem here is a lack of personality - and given that the band is trying to play their songs mostly straight (and with an influx of minor keys at that), it sucks the levity and some of the energy out of the songs - say what you will about One Direction, but at least you can tell they're having fun or might be able to sing their material with a smile. The Wanted, on the other hand... yeah, they're mostly convincing when they play it straight, but the band and the singers don't really develop distinctive personalities apart from each other, which will hurt them in the marketing angle. And coupled with the naturally ephemeral and occasionally forgettable nature of club music, that seems designed to strip away the personality of the performer unless that performer can weather it (and these guys don't), it makes the album lose impact. Not become bad, precisely, but it doesn't quite resonate as well as it should.

But whatever, Word Of Mouth by The Wanted is still a good album. Honestly, it wins a lot of points with me thanks to the songwriting and occasionally great instrumentation. For me, this album feels transitional - it took a while to put together, and it represents a selection of directions for the band that they could pursue, and some of them, particularly the baroque pop direction, could be interesting and could give the band a real sense of instrumental identity. As it is, I quite liked this album and I'm giving it a 7/10. It's not as good as In A World Like This by The Backstreet Boys, but it does show some potential from this group, and it surprised me in a good way. Keep it up, guys, I'm hoping for good things from you.

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