Thursday, October 13, 2016

album review: 'oh my my' by onerepublic

If you asked me if I liked OneRepublic, I'm not sure I could give you a straightforward answer.

And really, I should be able to at this point, because for a band as mainstream and accessible as OneRepublic, coming to a concrete opinion should not be as hard as it is... but it's hard to ignore how the band has evolved radically throughout the course of their decade-long career. They started in the tepid side of adult alternative, somehow finding ways to make Timbaland's production boring, and their second album was somehow even less tolerable. Hell, there was even a part of me around the turn of the decade that considered OneRepublic just a vanity project for frontman Ryan Tedder, especially as he had gotten far more traction as an in-demand producer, sort of like how Maroon 5 is effectively a vanity project for Adam Levine at this point. And in terms of sanitized pop rock, a Maroon 5 comparison is not unfair...

And then Native happened. Suddenly OneRepublic was back on the charts... but the songs didn't suck. I'm not too proud to admit that 'Counting Stars' was a pretty damn great track, and their follow-up 'Love Runs Out' might have been even better. More surprisingly it showed OneRepublic experimenting with different, rougher sounds and lyrics that aimed for more complex territory. Coupled with the fact that Tedder knew his way around a good hook and was willing to push his vocals a little harder, it was the first time I cared about OneRepublic, and I reckon I wasn't the only one.

But man, I had mixed feelings going into Oh My My - I didn't really like 'Wherever I Go', and despite Tedder promising to still have organic presence, all indications were that this was going to be another scattershot and messy pop album - one probably going long, too, clocking at around an hour. That said, Ryan Tedder had somehow roped in Santigold and Peter Gabriel of all people as guest stars, so Oh My My was bound to be somewhat interesting, right?

Well, if you were expecting this to have more personality or surprise you, the only way you'll get your wish was if you were expecting OneRepublic to have a distinct personality, because they sure as hell don't have one with this. I'm actually a little bit amazed how across around an hour of material OneRepublic strip mine from at least three or four recognizable acts in order to create a personality and yet reach such empty results. Now keep in mind just because Oh My My is shamelessly derivative doesn't mean there aren't decent songs or at least moments that develop a little more personality, because there are, but otherwise... well, just like the other big pop rock act Imagine Dragons who picked up distinct momentum in the early 2010s only to piss it away a few years later, the newest album is a mess.

And the place we have to start is Ryan Tedder... and look, can we just call him the poor man's Chris Martin and move on? Sure, he can bring a little more dark intensity than Coldplay ever tried, but that would assume this record was looking to follow in the mold of the better songs on Native, and with Tedder's vocals, that definitely doesn't happen. Part of this is that he opts more often for his falsetto than full-fledged belting... and I'm sorry, but it rarely has the same power for me, especially considering how often he layers it over his lower register or surrounds it with pitch-shifting and other extraneous vocal effects. And I'm utterly bewildered why this is - I get it for songs like 'A.I.' where you're trying to sound more mechanical or creepy - even though Peter Gabriel shows up and practically steals the entire song, but why do it on the title track, you're not Daft Punk! Or why do it on 'Born', where you want the song to soar but the filters keep dragging you lower, or on the more intimate sounds of 'Fingertips' where it serves as a distancing factor, or on the conversation with God on 'Human' where it just feels jarringly out of place? And that's not counting the utter abuse of reverb on 'Wherever I Go', which only serves to make that falsetto sound all the more shrill, or all the pitch-shifting that shows up on 'Dream' and 'Better'.

Of course, it's obvious why it's there on the latter song - namely that it's a particularly brazen rip-off of twenty one pilots and this drags us straight into the instrumentation and production. Now I already said this album is all over the place, but if we're looking for the two bands that probably inspired OneRepublic most on this project it would be twenty one pilots and especially Coldplay, particularly their most recent album and maybe with a splash of Ed Sheeran with the liquid electric and choppy acoustic grooves. Now for those of you who missed that review - I did cover it only for Warner Bros to drop a copyright claim all over it, thank you SO very much for that - I wasn't exactly wild about the last Coldplay release, mostly because it felt formless and written by committee, the sort of record stepping into styles and sounds that didn't flatter the group. Well, it looks like OneRepublic didn't learn that lesson, because the second we get the retro-disco vibe of the title track or the fast-paced flows balanced against heavy cymbals and darker tones on 'Better', or all of 'Wherever I Go', or the painfully thin horns trying to add bombast to 'NbHD', which was only saved by Santigold's phoned-in guest appearance, OneRepublic is just out of their depth. They don't have the tightness or slick energy to make songs like this work, and even though it is derivative of Coldplay they're a lot better at the upbeat soaring anthems like 'Kids' or 'Born' or especially 'Heaven' - sure, it's all so much U2 worship, but I can at least get behind it. Similar case for 'A.I.' - sure, it's cold and mechanical with the interweaving synth and piano melodies and lockstep beat, but it's also basically a Peter Gabriel song, down to the breakdown and interlude before the outro, and probably my favourite thing here. But with the exception of the sparse gospel touches on 'Choke' - one of the few tracks that gets close to recalling the religious iconography that worked on parts of Native - this album feels like a facsimile of other acts, all drenched in enough reverb to mute any sort of aggressive bite or punch. And again, these aren't bad songs in the slightest, but there's very little to them that makes them distinctly OneRepublic songs, especially in the production.

But surely that was salvaged by the lyrics, right? Well, look, as much as Tedder might know his way around a hook - 'Kids', 'Choke', 'A.I.', 'Heaven', 'Born', 'Better' even though Tyler Joseph should probably sue - I find a lot of the writing here pretty flimsy, lacking a lot of distinguishing detail or character to inform the delivery. Thematically it seems to have Tedder searching for some form of passion or spark to manifest beyond what's in his head, but it's rare that we get any sense of danger or stakes in it, so it can feel toothless. Let's go back to 'Better', where it's trying for that internal mental crisis, but it's all anchored by the hook suggesting he knows of course it's going to end up better. 'Dreams' is arguably a little better, mostly because it can get a good simmering groove going, but again, there's no real pay-off or explosion on that song. And then you get the lyrical cases like 'Kids' where the writing just feels sloppy - you end the prechorus implied that they're going to say something crazy, but the hook feels disconnected, and too mature to be said by a kid in its nostalgic lookback but still going ahead. Even on 'Lift Me Up', the lyrics imply on the bridge that he doesn't need anyone to solve his problems... so why would anyone help to lift him up, it's running at cross-purposes here! And then you get 'Human', where Tedder talks to God and you can tell his problems are not that complicated, and then God seems to put him in his place but then follows with the musing that he might just become human to escape the responsibility... okay, for one, an all-loving deity wouldn't do that except for two, when he did as Jesus, and you'd think OneRepublic as Christians would remember their own theology, and three, didn't Joan Osbourne do this with 'What If God Was One Of Us' and it sucked then too? 

Look, the largest issue with this record is that there's no sense of climax or stakes, and for all the stabs towards soaring bombast you need to soar from somewhere - if you're not overcoming something, all this grand swell can get undercut, and I never get the sense that Tedder is taking a risk by showing what he really is transcending or trying to overcome, or to show him failing at some point to get there - that's why the heartbreak of 'Choke' actually connects by showing the loss; similar case for the dark prog-inspired rigidity of 'A.I.'. Hell, that's also one of the reasons why 'Counting Stars' and 'Love Runs Out' worked, there was a sense of risk and drama and stakes! Whereas with Oh My My, it feels guarded and incredibly safe, not just lyrically but compositionally as well, pulling from established acts and sounds that have proved workable for other bands or sounds, and it undercuts the emotional pathos of OneRepublic as a distinctive act. And again, that doesn't mean there aren't good songs, but certainly not enough of them to save this. For me, this is a very strong 5/10, and really only a recommendation if you like any of the other acts I mentioned. If you want a facsimile of them with some decent production and hooks, I guess you might enjoy this, but otherwise you're not missing anything new.

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