Thursday, June 21, 2018

album review: 'youngblood' by 5 seconds of summer

Oh, this one is going to hurt.

See, I was never one of those who hated 5 Seconds Of Summer right out of the gate, even if 'She Looks So Perfect' was stupid: I reviewed their first EP and their full-length debut in 2014 and Sounds Good, Feels Good a year later and I actually saw a progression for this group: yeah, in terms of mainstream-friendly pop rock they weren't reinventing the wheel or even stepping close to the exploding pop punk underground, but the hooks were catchy, the writing was steadily getting better, and they had songs with genuine crunch and presence that could hit a little harder. And while I never expected them to get that much heavier, in the wake of that pop punk and emo underground picking up steam you'd think the natural choice would be to double down on the instincts that got them writing gems like 'Jet Black Heart' and push even further.

And then you remember that 5 Seconds Of Summer were signed to a major label who were probably paying more attention what Maroon 5 was doing in gutless pop or how Fueled By Ramen has been systemically neutering the rock out of their roster, so gone were producers David Hodges and John Feldmann and in came the pop songwriting machine to churn out desaturated, groove-centric pop... which I'm not against if it feels natural and flatters the group like with The 1975, but when you have a band perfectly primed to take advantage of a rising underground movement and you force them to imitate a sound that's closing in on its last legs, that stinks of artistic mismanagement. So no, I was not looking forward to this release - could 5SOS pull their band from the brink?

Well if they did, it's just barely. And given there's really no way to listen to Youngblood without thinking that this sounds more tired and drained of interesting ideas and charisma compared to their last two records, I'm stuck evaluating this as a pop album. And on that basis... look, it's better than Maroon 5, but if that's the goddamn benchmark we're working with we have a serious problem, people! 

And there's no way we can escape this either, because all across this album I don't hear an untalented or uninspired act who need the studio assistance to prop up weak songs - if you pay attention to the basswork from Calum Hood and the drum fills that Ashton Irwin tries to sneak in on songs like 'Moving Along' whenever he can, it reminds you there's a solid explosive band that's looking for an opportunity to cut loose, and while 5SOS were never giving us big guitar solos you'd like to think that Michael Clifford would have more to do than the sort of desaturated, gutless strumming that'd be better suited for a Shawn Mendes album on tunes like 'Lie To Me' and 'Better Man'. Hell, with songs like 'Woke Up In Japan' which was cowritten by Teddy Geiger, interpolates Panic! At The Disco, and features trap snares, it's hard not to feel like the band stuck trying to claw its way from behind production choices that seem designed to strip any catchy melody or intensity that isn't carefully designed to feel overblown and badly mixed. You might not like the mixing on the hook of the title track, but at least there's some edge in the main groove - similar case for the overcompressed crunch of 'More', the song is more reliant on a wiry bass synth, but at least it feels like a rock song! On the flip side, does anybody like this stilted bass groove in 'Valentine' that feels like a mid-60s tune going through a madhouse, or how the pitched-up backing vocals from 'Why Won't You Love Me' sound imported from an AJR song in the worst way possible? And what's increasingly exasperating is that 5 Seconds Of Summer were allowed to make a breezy and bright new wave record without all these stilted, producer-driven experiments, they stick the landing: 'Talk Fast' is a glittery slice of mid-80s pop rock with a great hook and guitar rollick, and while 'If Walls Could Talk' sounds like something you'd hear done with a little more slick attitude by any number of indie rock groups, it's at least in the right ballpark.

But this runs deeper into the presentation and content, and where I think the bigger misunderstanding runs of the strengths of 5 Seconds Of Summer. Keep in mind one of 5 Seconds Of Summer's greatest assets are their knack for guitar-driven melodic hooks, but since this record neutered so much of that, I tend to fall back on the vocal harmonies behind Luke Hemmings - he's a damn good singer and the boys have a lot of earnest chemistry. And this can work in pop rock relationship drama trending towards new wave - look at Marianas Trench and Astoria - but the writing needs to carry a certain attitude and swagger that the boys here just aren't tight enough to leverage, and the writing doesn't help. You can clearly tell that their cowriters are trying to present Youngblood as a 'mature' release, with the relationship drama feeling more tortured and grown-up than the admittedly adolescent stakes of previous records, but that's usually most exposed in the complexity of the situations described or the framing, and it's clear that immature earnestness is still very much present. Oh, songs like 'Lie To Me' try to get close - he's still into it, she's not, and he wants her to lie and stick around - or the post-breakup crash of 'Moving Along' where he's clearly doing the opposite even though he did the dumping, or how oversold 'Better Man' feels, it comes across really awkward, guys going through the motions of adult relationship songs but with the same attitudes that filled their earlier records. It's at its absolute worst on the 'spending all my money on you' of 'Empty Wallets' or the adolescent whinging of 'Why Won't You Love Me'... but to be fair there are points where it comes close to working. I like how 'Ghost Of You' openly acknowledges that while you might want that ghost of the relationship to stick around, it is still fading, and 'Talk Fast' actually leverages that earnestness at the core of the band in an interesting way amidst the hookups, where he wants something more but he's content with what he's getting - there's a tension there that's well-executed, certainly better than the bloated wonkiness of 'Valentine' that somehow feels more appropriate for Halloween than its own titular holiday!

But moving beyond all of that... look, I find it hard to blame 5 Seconds Of Summer for this - you can tell they're trying however they can to manage their transition into a more mature act, but the list of cowriters and producers tell me they're being managed within an inch of their lives and in an absolutely wrong direction given what's coming up in pop rock right now. The fact that this is salvageable at all is a credit to the band's talent and nailing a few solid songs. But otherwise this is a 5/10 and only recommended for the fans, and even then I can say this record will alienate some that weren't entirely on-board three years after their last album. Not precisely bad, but man, I wish they were going in a more interesting direction than this.

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