Monday, June 16, 2014

album review: 'hebrews' by say anything

About a year ago, just about a month before I converted my blog to videos, I took a request to do a retrospective review of In Defense Of The Genre by Say Anything. Widely heralded as one of the strongest emo bands to break in the 2000s, Say Anything rode the tremendous success of ...Is A Real Boy into their 2007 release, an overloaded, messy, and thoroughly interesting record co-opting every variant and subgenre of emo music popular at the time and throwing it in our faces. It was ambitious, swollen with collaborators, and while I'd argue it didn't really work as a cohesive whole, it was still compelling and definitely worth a listen.

But ever since that one-two punch from the mid-2000s, I've had the frustrating feeling that Say Anything might be falling into a holding pattern, The band has long ago stopped being a traditional punk act, to the point where their 2012 release Anarchy, My Dear felt distinctly underwhelming as the band attempted to recreate the visceral emotions that fueled ...Is A Real Boy to very mixed results. And when I heard that Say Anything was following it up with another collaborator-overloaded album this year titled Hebrews, I had to restrain my desire to groan with exasperation. Unlike some fans, I didn't hate Anarchy, My Dear, but my issue was that it felt distinctly neutered and lacking in dramatic force compared to Say Anything's best work, especially considering that they were trying to make a punk record and yet sounded more tame and reserved than ever before.

And when I heard that not only was Hebrews going to be filled with collaborators, but that there would also be no guitars on the album, with the melody lines entirely replaced by strings arrangements and keyboards... well, I'm in favour of bands experimenting, so out of sheer curiosity, I took a look at the album. Was it as bad as I feared?

Well, no, not quite. Indeed, that choice might be one of the reasons why Hebrews by Say Anything is such a fascinating listen and one of their more cohesive works to date, especially lyrically. Now that's not saying this album works by any stretch of the mind, or is anything close to the band's best work, but here the artistic choices seem to click a little better with what made Say Anything one of the better emo bands to come out of the 2000s, which is saying something.

So let's start with the biggest improvement and the area where Say Anything surprised me the most in a good way - lyrics and themes. My criticism of the past two Say Anything records was that the drama often felt forced, but Hebrews doesn't bother to recreate the drama of the past and instead taps into two very real events in Max Bemis' life: the impending birth of his daughter and a reconciliation of his place in the music scene right now, all wrapped in the language of struggles with faith. The birth is more immediate, and arguably the one that doesn't quite coalesce as well, as Bemis wrestles with how the hell he'll manage to be a good father, given his own instabilities and neuroses - and here, he might have succeeded too well in the opposite direction. Now let me stress that some of the sentiments are expressed quite well: a song like 'Boyd', where Bemis and his wife feel the protective urges of panic and fear when they encounter a guy dating their future teenage daughter, shows exactly how you can create real drama from adult situations like these. But on songs like 'Six Six Six' and 'Kall Me Kubrick' - the latter of which is a song where Bemis pulls a Godwin that overshadows any sentiment - Bemis' vivid language doesn't exactly help his case. It's also an arc that feels a little unfinished and unfocused - the birth and 'redemption' occurs in 'Push' and 'The Shape Of Love To Come', but then 'Boyd' comes up and we're left without a real resolution there.

Now the arc that is given more attention and works a fair bit better is that concerning Bemis' current career trajectory. And it's here where his self-awareness and painfully honesty pays big dividends, as 'Judas Decapitation', 'My Greatest Fear Is Splendid', and 'Lost My Touch' are easily some of the best tracks on the album, where he addresses the audience that wants the band to keep remaking their early work, and the fear of his possible irrelevance in the future. The truth is that Bemis is in a very different place emotionally and mentally than when he made ...Is A Real Boy, and the excellent song 'Lost My Touch' zeroes in on this, touching on not just how he has moved on into other ideas and themes, but how some people can drown in 'the love of yesterdays' and an obsession with nostalgia instead of moving forward. And the great thing about that track is the nuance: Bemis anticipates that someday, he'll be replaced and overshadowed - and since he loves the genre and the music, he's okay with that, and you should be too.

So what about the religious elements? Well, they're more of a framing device to add subtext to the record, but there are songs like 'Push' and the title track that touch on them more directly - and while they do bring up some intriguing themes about what it is like to be a Jewish man and a minority in modern America, I'm not sure Bemis' delivery is the most flattering portrayal. This is where the album steps into slightly shakier ground, and that's in Bemis' vocals and the collaborators, most of whom are confined to backing vocals and the occasional verse/interlude, none of which really can match Bemis' howling on this record. Quite simply, he does not do subtle, and while this delivery fit the explosive instability of early Say Anything records, it works a lot less well here. And maybe it's just me - and keep in mind I'm not Jewish and I'm not one to question how a man portrays his own faith and religion - but some of the accents and exaggerated vocals do lean a little close to caricature and it's hard to take it seriously.

But now we have to talk about the big elephant in the room, and the biggest reason why I don't think this album holds up: the instrumentation and production. Now I'm not condemning Bemis for taking the guitars out entirely, because there are seeds of a good idea here with a richer strings orchestration, and I've always liked Say Anything's gift for melodic hooks. But here... look, it doesn't work, both in composition and production. The keyboards come across as flat and chintzy, the electronic fuzz feels plastered on to give this album any possible viscera, and the string arrangements are incredibly top-heavy, relying much more on the higher pitched violins than the cello or violas. And since the bass is so low, the tracks feel weirdly off-balance, and the production balance only emphasizes that point. None of the strings production feels textured or organic, almost to the point if I wondered if it was done by synthesizer, and the excess of unnecessary electronic effects only serves to muffle the underlying melodies. If this instrumentation was trying to add grand power or dramatic swell to this record, it fails completely to the point where the songs where the lyrics take center stage are easily the best on the album. But even that doesn't mask the biggest problem: Max Bemis' howled and raw vocals just do not sound good over this instrumentation. Sure, he brings a lot of presence and force, but since none of the production has the epic swell to match him, especially considering he brought backing vocalists to further augment his presence, almost every song feels painfully underweight. Maybe if the orchestral arrangement was bigger, or Bemis downplayed a few of his songs to reflect newfound maturity, this could have worked, but it doesn't click here, at least for me.

In the end, Hebrews by Say Anything is interesting and certainly memorable, but I'd hesitate to call it good. Sure, the lyricism has returned and it's focused and cohesive, but the instrumentation can't match it and Bemis' vocals feel like a disparate element to all three. As it is, I'm inclined to like its unique lyrical flavour, which bumps it to a 6/10, and there are a few melodies and enough nuance for me to somewhat recommend this album, but it's an experiment that will probably alienate some established Say Anything fans. If you're curious or invested in Bemis' long-delayed maturity, it's worth a look, but outside of that, it's more of a curiosity than a true standout, so keep that in mind.

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