Tuesday, July 5, 2016

album review: 'what we live for' by american authors

So let's talk about surprises.

It's a sad fact of being a critic is that it's rare that you get surprised by an album. Sure, sometimes you'll get something insane coming out of the woodwork that blows your mind - which is why critics tend to shower praise on oddball records that are unlike anything they've ever heard before, and I'll admit I can succumb to this as well. But more often than not, it can be tough to go into every single record with the expectation that every album is someone's first, to try and capture that emotion of genuine awe.

And that's probably why I've got a fond spot in my heart for American Authors, something that'll probably surprise most of you if you only remember them for their sort-of hit 'Best Day Of My Life' that rapidly became a commercial product more than an actual song. And from that single it was widely thought that they were just another soulless rip-off of Imagine Dragons before that band fell off the deep end. Hell, that's what I expected when I covered their debut album Oh, What A Life - and it wasn't anything close to what I got. They were far closer to the power pop of acts like Semisonic or Fountains Of Wayne, just pressed through modern genre sounds of the time. It all lead to a weirdly likable record that didn't quite manage to work all the way through, mostly courtesy of some by-the-numbers songwriting and a frustrating inability for anyone to know what they were doing behind the production boards, but was still better than most would expect. And thus I had an interest in digging into their sophomore follow-up, which promised to continue and expand upon many of the same sounds - and hell, it's been a while since anyone cared about Imagine Dragons, so maybe American Authors might sound more fresh. So how did What We Live For turn out?

Honestly, it's a bit tricky to say. American Authors won a lot of goodwill from me catching off-guard in 2014, and unless you dramatically shift your sound, that lightning is not going to strike twice. And while I can definitely see that American Authors is taking steps in the right direction in doubling down on modern power pop, I get the impression they've got a ways to go before they make that classic or deserve to be held with the greats. In other words, it's definitely a decent and likable album, but not a great one.

And the frustrating thing is that for every step American Authors takes forward, it seems like they take a step back, and the best place to prove that is instrumentation and production, the latter of which still can't figure out what the hell it's doing. Like the last album the record is completely skewed in favour of percussion over melody, but I tend to like American Authors' version of it a little better thanks to stronger guitar accents complimenting the beats, stronger flow on the grooves, and the rich backing chorus, which is where American Authors made the first big improvement. I've never been fond of the odd, slightly lo-fi vocal pickup on Zac Barnett vocals - when it's not consistent with the rest of the mix, it feels like a gimmick - and thankfully they lean on it a lot less on this record, which means his raw exuberance blends with the backing vocals a lot better. And I can't understate how much of an advantage that is, because this guy has charisma and the more organic this record feels, the better it is. Hell, the guitar line on 'Right Here Right Now' feels partially adapted from 'Lust For Life and I honestly wish the band took more steps towards a rock direction - maybe a little too smooth with the banjo and mandolin tones, but they're good enough melodic songwriters to make what some might consider a stale instrumental palette between OneRepublic and Imagine Dragons feel a little fresh, like on 'Mess With Your Heart' or 'Pocket Full Of Gold', the latter of which drops into a slightly clumsy slowdown and pickup for the bridge that definitely stands out. And I'd be remiss to not mention the guitar solo on 'Superman' that sounds pretty sweet, it's easily the best thing about that song! 

But the overwhelming problem with this record is cohesion, because while they got rid of and deemphasized any synths on this record, I'm not wild about the hollow, reverb-touched pianos, obvious drum machines, and vocal samples, all of which feel like attempts to move towards a modern pop sound and clumsily at that. And not only do they not blend well with the more organic instrumentation, instead of trying to make modern pop choices fit with their sound, they do the opposite, compressing the guitars, sanding off any melodic edge, and really making me wish their hooks had more actual bite to them. It seems like a step in the opposite direction of defining a unique sound, and it can lead to some real tonal whiplash, like on 'Nothing Better' between the plinking upbeat hook and lyrics that imply at least a little more subtlety than what we get. The most egregious slipup comes in the vocal production of 'Go Big Or Go Home' - when you have a lo-fi vocal filter and then throw autotune on the vocals on the bridge, it clashes badly. 

But fine, you gain some you lose some here, what about the lyrics? Well, following off of the success Oh What A Life, lyrically What We Live For is more focused on the aftermath: living big, going faster and harder, and a little reflection on losing track of one's roots because of it. And this is where I feel American Authors runs into a problem that's a little difficult to describe, one that's only exacerbated by their continued lack of greater detail beyond snippets. And again, don't get me wrong, I liked the classic road song references of 'I'm Born To Run', the lack of place on 'Pride', the frustrated heartbreak of 'Replaced', and especially that Ryan Adams call-out on 'Mess With My Heart', but we're only getting ancillary details around songs that stick to a pretty recognizable formula with power pop, and don't quite get as interesting as they should. The track that probably intrigued me most lyrically was 'No Love', where our protagonist confronts his stale relationship, and instead of dumping her because they've grown into two different people, wants to try to start again to see if their common ground remains fertile - it's a nice sentiment, and a different direction than what I was expecting. But my issue comes in what I'm going to call '7 Years Syndrome', related to the titular song from Lukas Graham that most people have turned against en masse for its arrogance and overwrought lack of self-awareness. Now while I'll still defend elements of that song - it at least mentions how he's just as easily forgotten by the family he's leaving behind now when he gets old - the larger issue that's caused me to cool on it is the self-satisfaction, which hurts the dramatic stakes. And American Authors arguably hits this area worse, holding back songs like 'Pride' and 'Pocketful of Gold' or especially 'Superman' because the stakes don't seem to have weight. I get driving towards that huge chorus as a contrast to the verses - planting and payoff - but the mood and pace often feels so chipper that it undercuts some of the serious questions and dramatic weight this record needs. I liked 'Replaced' for slowing down and showing how it does sting to be replaced quickly in relationships, but when 'Superman' shows him looking for a hero, not even before the verse is over does he stress 'only for a little while' because moments later he's as strong as Superman, and I feel like I'm completely missing the transition! And then the record tries to compensate with the existential crises of 'Mind Body Soul' as a closer as he feels more adrift and alone, but to end on such a minor note when this record could have hit that dramatic payoff feels like trying to squeeze all the conflict into the last minute. And then there's just points that feel confused or sloppy, like on 'Nothing Better' where I'd argue there might have been sarcasm towards this demanding girl with the line after her perfection coming as 'I don't believe it's true', but the tone never pays it off; or take the many instances where to preserve that admittedly good lyrical flow, they just plug in the same word repeated or stutter the word, which always has struck me as lazy songwriting.

So to conclude, I don't dislike this album - a power pop record that can deliver as many hooks as this one can tends to win me over. But more than ever I'm convinced American Authors aren't focusing on their strengths as a more rock-leaning group, instead trying to win that sweet crossover money, and as such their writing and production are taking away from their strongest elements. As such, while I am giving this a 6/10, I'm not about to call this a sophomore slump - if anything, American Authors needs to refocus on an organic sound and find a producer who isn't going to make their songs feel so assembled-in-post rather than played. They've got potential with this, which means I don't mind recommending it, but I definitely think they can do better.

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