Monday, July 22, 2019

album review: 'order in decline' by sum 41

I think a lot of Canadians have a weird relationship to Sum 41.

Hell, given this is the first time I'm talking about the band... I think pretty much ever, mostly because I'd describe myself as a casual fan at best, Sum 41 is one of those breakthrough punk acts in the early 2000s that might have notched a few singles in the U.S. but were damn near ubiquitous in Canada, to the point when I went through an old greatest hits compilation I was stunned how many songs I knew from memory. But that was the rub with Sum 41: for me they've always been more of a singles band who drilled into insanely catchy hooks and infectious energy more than consistent refinement, especially lyrically. And hey, a blunt wallop can be fine for a shot of adrenaline on the radio, or even for a surprisingly raucous crossover metal song, but Sum 41 also had a tendency to overreach into ballads of questionable quality or political subject matter that where the writing occasionally had more heart than focus. So when even Canadian audiences lost track of them... I'll be honest, I didn't even notice they were gone.

But by 2016, with the band now on an indie label and long out of an obligation to court radio play - plus the return of their original lead guitarist to make them a five piece act - the band regained some critical attention on their album 13 Voices that year, which signaled a slow shift to a darker, more melodic hardcore and alternative metal-leaning sound that wasn't precisely great but was more likable than I expected. And when I heard the group was getting even darker, heavier, and more political on their newest album... look, it's always a little weird to see Canadian punks write about American politics, but apparently they weren't going to snub some of the toxicity leaking in up here, so hell yeah I was interested, especially given how the band didn't seem interested at all on coasting on nostalgia. So okay, I'm intrigued and a little stunned that I'm doing this, but what did we get from Sum 41 on Order In Decline?

So I'm going to say something that's going to sound a little strange or even a bit negative, but trust me when I intend it as a compliment: this is a Sum 41 album that's best to experience knowing the band, but expecting nothing from them. Of course you've heard that this is their darkest, heaviest, and most politically charged project to date - and on some level, it is - but we're still dealing with Sum 41 here, where the writing paints in broad brushes, the production is relatively blunt and thin, and while the heaviness approaches metal, it's not quite going to punch as hard as an album that fully commits to it, especially as I'm left with the lingering feeling that continuing to step away from pop might be forfeiting Sum 41's greatest underrated strength. And that's probably one of the reasons why while I definitely like this album, I'm not quite loving it as much as others - definitely good and a pleasant surprise, but not quite great, at least to me.

But the funny thing is that this actually leads to a pretty straightforward review, at least at first, because Sum 41 has been releasing music for around twenty years and they've tended to stick to a formula, albeit now being a five-piece and using the rhythm guitar to ramp up the heaviness. The leads are loud, fast, and crunchy at the front with the occasional effect tacked on, the grooves trend between generally underweight or a little more burly and developed - which tend to be the songs I like more here, especially considering the stalking swagger of 'Turning Away' and the spiky rollick of 'Heads Will Roll' - Deryck Whibley's vocals don't exactly convey subtlety but have genuine emotional range across a spectrum of distrust, rage, frustration, and genuine sadness, and the entire mix has the slightly bricked pop compression that's designed to intensify the broad wallop all the further, even on the ballads like 'Never There' and 'Catching Fire' - although bizarrely not on some of the arranged elements used to flesh out the atmosphere. And I won't lie and say that the last case is annoying but likely will never change - Whibley's been self-producing every Sum 41 album since Underclass Hero and it's analogous to the same approach they had in their heyday, and at the same time it helps foster that broad accessibility that's always been at the roots of this band's appeal. At the same time, though, it's best suited to ramping up their pop-ready hooks, and with less of those here this time around in favour of tones that owe more to crossover thrash, a subgenre of metal for which I've had mixed results... I won't lie, I would have preferred a greater sense of dynamics and texture, especially considering Sum 41 aren't the most wild or supercharged when it comes to raw punk fury - that might have been where the alternative metal side could have helped, but most of those textures and tones were jettisoned for something more direct and aggressive. That said, this is also the sort of blunt formula that Sum 41 has refined with veteran efficiency, so from the downtuned muscle of 'Out For Blood' to the Muse-esque gallop on 'The New Sensation' to the incredibly kinetic drive of 'The People Vs.', so even when the band is dabbling with thrash, they aren't bad at it.

And to the surprise of pretty much nobody, that same lack of subtlety directly translates to their writing as well... and I'll admit to being a little disappointed that while we did get the obvious callout of the current U.S. administration on '45 (A Matter Of Time)', I feel like we were cheated a good punk takedown of some of the malignant entities in Canadian politics. Granted, you can make the argument that given some of the blatant parallels between the radical edges of populist conservatism in Canada and the proto-fascism down south that the broader writing style of Sum 41 makes sense - songs like 'The New Sensation', 'A Death In The Family', 'Eat You Alive' and 'The People Vs...' could be as applicable to the current president as they could be to the current Ontario premier Doug Ford and his miserable and corrupt spree. But what's really more telling is that Sum 41 are canny enough to frame many of these songs not just as attacks, but also highlight the emotional and mental toll their actions take upon their constituency, highlighting the increased toxic state of mind that makes everything feel that much more bleak and worse. Hell, it even leads to a strange sort of cohesion with the more emotional ballads, like the painful non-reconciliation with his lost father on 'Never There' or trying to process the possible grief if he were to lose his wife on 'Catching Fire' - yeah, in the latter case you can tell the emotionality is messy or even at points incoherent, unable to handle the loss, but that in a strange way can make sense. But as I've mentioned my three P's for good political art for years now, while Sum 41 has power and populism, they don't exactly have much precision, and when you pair it with this style of production, it's hard not to feel like a few of these songs have less weight than they should, even if they're bound to be not quite as dated - mixed blessing there.

But as a whole... you know, when I opened up this review I called Sum 41 more of a singles act, not just because the albums could be uneven but also because some subject matter could trend towards redundancy - that's what happens when you don't exactly bring a ton of nuance to the table, which is mostly true here too. All the same, I can't help but think that Order In Decline is a more consistent and focused album than I've heard from this band in some time - not really precise or cutting enough to be punk I'll revisit time and time again, and I do think they'd do well to integrate a little more of that poppier side in composition if only to put the hooks over the top, look at PUP and Morbid Stuff from earlier this year. But for a fast, angry, and accessible listen, I see this maybe even being a shot in the arm for longtime fans showing where Sum 41 could go from here, which is why I'm giving this a light 7/10 and definitely a recommendation - generally likable, solid stuff, and while I don't expect the same radio play, it's catchy enough to pull me back all the same.

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