Thursday, October 22, 2015

album review: 'sounds good, feels good' by 5 seconds of summer

I almost feel obliged to talk about 5 Seconds Of Summer at this point.

See, the more I hear their singles and look at their cowriters, the more I'm seeing a group that's at least trying to head in a more interesting direction in revitalizing the pop rock and pop punk of the late 90s and early 2000s, which stands in stark contrast to everything else on modern pop radio. When I originally covered their debut EP, I didn't see much beyond a middling act who was playing to younger audiences who didn't otherwise grow up with Sum 41 or Blink-182 or Green Day or The Offspring in the same way, but their self-titled debut album did have some promise. I figured if they went with rougher production, brought some of their real instrumental chops to the forefront, and maybe tightened up the writing a bit, they'd have a shot at some staying power.

And going into this record, I had every reason to believe that was happening. Yeah, the lineage to previous mainstream-accessible pop rock and pop punk bands was pretty obvious and you could definitely argue they weren't reinventing the formula or rising above their forebears, but they weren't bad successors. And to further give them credit, they were working with songwriters from All Time Low and Good Charlotte and even Evanescence, all of which gave me the impression that if the band took the opportunity to get rougher instrumentation, they might pick up some darker subject matter along the way - hell, 'Jet Black Heart' seemed to indicate they were taking some cues from mid-2000s emo, at the very least. In other words, I was hoping this would at least be an improvement on their debut, rock a little harder - was I right?

Well, here's the thing: Sounds Good, Feels Good feels like an album split between two distinctive ideas, which the band actually acknowledges on the final track, 'I got one foot in the golden life, one foot in the gutter'. Because I get the feeling 5 Seconds of Summer want to play and write rougher, edgier, more personal tracks, more in line with the 90s material that they idolize - which believe it or not, I think they might be able to pull off. But on the other hand they love prominent choruses overloaded with power chords and vocal layering and super-clean production full of orchestral elements, still tied back to the prefabricated pseudo-boy band image they used to epitomize, especially in their songwriting. And they can mostly pull this sort of sound off too - the problem is that most of this record is stuck in the middle, full of half measures and compromises that don't rise to the level of their idols and yet don't clearly define their own brighter lane as well. I'm definitely not saying this album is bad - in fact, it's another case where I was surprised how much I enjoyed parts of it - but I definitely think it could be a lot stronger.

So let's start with the area where the improvement is most visible: the vocal arrangements. I'm still not wild about all of their voices - most particularly Calum, especially considering he's the only one who gets a solo track with 'Invisible' that turns out pretty good but not great - but they are bringing more of their huge, soaring choruses to bear with more intricate harmonies, which is a definite plus. Of the vocalists I like the most, it would probably fall by a hair to Michael over Luke - even though Luke's voice is more versatile, Michael's carries a bit more grit, and I do like how they make more use of their unique voices to play off each other, even if I'd argue it all still feels a little too clean and lacking in rawness for pop punk. 

Fortunately for them, their instrumentation does pick up a fair amount of slack - the riffs are chunkier and heavier, when we get guitar interplay it can be pretty well-executed, and as always Ashton's drumming is so much more complex and layered than it needs to be. That's the first frustration I immediately have with the instrumentation: for as good as these hooks can be - and make no mistake, songs like 'She's Kinda Hot', 'Castaway', 'Airplanes', and especially 'Jet Black Heart' have great hooks - I find myself wishing that the rest of the instrumentation was able to match it with more solos or tighter grooves or even just kicking up the tempo for more aggressive songs, all of which I think the band is capable of delivering. Of course, the much bigger problem is the production - which, for the third project in a row from 5 Seconds of Summer, is a complete mess. Yes, there are good melodies supporting the choruses on this album, but when you keep your lead guitar at the same volume as your cymbals and tambourine and a fair bit below the vocals, you don't gain that instrumental hook to match the vocal line - and that's when they don't pick a guitar tone that's so liquid or synthetic or a groove that's buzzed out and blocky like on 'Catch Fire' that the rhythms just don't grab me. A larger part of this issue is how often the basslines are completely drowned out - hell, I think the only reason they were more prominent on 'Hey Everybody' was because the song interpolates the melody of Duran Duran's 'Hungry Like A Wolf' and needed to anchor itself in some tightness. But it's not so much the production is universally bad as it is incredibly inconsistent, from the tinny vocal filter on 'Castaway' to the terrible acoustic pickup on 'Fly Away' to how so few of these grooves can actually explode on their chorus due to guitar compression and taking away the edge this group desperately needs. It's why 'Jet Black Heart' is easily the best song on the album - the chorus melody can actually explode and it doesn't feel like a pale facsimile of what I could get from listening to Boys Like Girls or Weezer or Green Day or Sum 41. But that's assuming 5 Seconds of Summer wants to get heavier, and throughout the back half of this album with the addition of superfluous strings sections and more liquid and electronic tones - including two interludes that really don't go anywhere - I'm reminded more of an off-brand Angels & Airwaves that keeps pushing for that airy swell and doesn't really stick the landing.

Part of this is the lyrics - and you know, I'll give these guys credit, they are taking more of a role in writing and are playing their earnestness to their advantage as they grow up. As such we get a fair few songs trying to empathize with that younger generation with big dreams and no money to achieve them, to break out of the system that brands them as underachievers. Cliche? Sure, but it's populist, even if one of the few times I get a feel for any stakes is 'Invisible', where Calum laments giving up his football scholarship to be in the band and how he's never really dealt with his issues. What those darker issues actually are, we don't know, which takes us to the first big issue with the writing: it can feel maddeningly vague and broad, the stories lacking detail and the poetry lacking colour. Another reason why 'Jet Black Heart' stands out for me - sure, it's borderline emo, but it's got lyrical personality. But that song's also indicative of the second major theme underscoring this album: heartbreak. If their self-titled debut saw them finding love, Sounds Good Feels Good paradoxically has them losing it, looking to cling as long as they can or try to get some form of permanence before it all ends. But these songs stumble in two key areas: for one, they never really come to any acceptance or deeper melancholy that the relationships are over - it's all yearning and longing, and not only does it undercut the maturity, it weakens the overarching drama. More importantly, it also shows them trying to change these girls' minds or telling the girls to lie to them for just another night - and if this record was willing to show any sort of self-awareness in these choices or beyond 'Castaway' actually show the heartbreak, we could have a real gutpunch, but instead it can come across as clingy and lacking in greater weight. I will say the writing is more consistent from their debut, but it never really takes that deeper step to cut deeper, stuck in the safety blanket of buoyant self-delusion even when it stops making sense.

But again, it highlights that split in artistic direction that runs through the entire album. 5 Seconds of Summer has the chops to rock harder, but their producers seem terrified of giving their instrumentation any real teeth... and yet can you blame them when with maybe the exception of Michael they might not have a more raw sound, and lyrically only got close to it by collaborating with a writer from Evanescence. And again, it highlights that for as much as 5 Seconds Of Summer worship those pop punk acts of the 90s and 2000s, they feel too polished and clean, which I don't think was their intention - even if it might be a better fit, the music would be a lot less interesting, at least until the writing improves. So for me, again, it's a strong 6/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a fan growing up with the band, but for as much as they are maturing and improving, the record feels transitional as they haven't quite nailed down their best path. I'm still convinced 5 Seconds Of Summer has a great album in them... but they're not quite there yet. Getting closer, though.

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