A friendly warning: this review will not be safe for work. There will be plentiful profanity in descriptive and disgusting varieties. I’m not quite certain what the qualifiers for any bots to flag a video like this as age-gated, but this review will certainly test them. If you have an issue with such a bellicose manner, I highly recommend you click away now, because the next several paragraphs of this script will surely aggravate you. I also recommend if you’re a fan of this band, unless you’re into a sort of masochism that involves sounding, you might want to clear out too – to put it mildly, you’re not going to like what I’ll have to say.
Now then… I was originally planning this review as something impromptu, maybe even frame it as a reaction rant, something that would allow you to all experience the aural evisceration that I suffered when listening through this record. Hell, I was planning it as something of a short, bundled in with a bunch of other records so that my venom could be diluted across other listens. And in truth, that would probably be easier than putting myself through any more listens to this plasticized skullfuck of a record… but it wouldn’t be as satisfying, especially when I may have taken the step to announce on Twitter that this record easily would take the spot as the worst album of the 2010s thus far.
And I know some of you are thinking, ‘wait, what the hell? These guys, an “indie” pop trio that concocted a precious brand of DIY that fails to disguise they’re all being bankrolled by Warner Brothers and have toured as openers in front of acts that I must assume are faintly embarrassed to be on the same ticket? They can’t be that bad, right?’ Well, that’s the thing: AJR are one of those overly polished ‘indie’ groups like American Authors who became more famous for commercial jingles than actual records – and yet unlike American Authors, who turned out to be a modest little power pop group away from the spotlight, AJR could be comfortably described as everything shrill, twee and insufferable about modern indie music once you dig into that awful fucking debut. And yet since ‘I’m Ready’ apparently sold a million copies to people with no taste or brain cells back in 2015, AJR somehow became convinced that they should go bigger, perhaps even aim for a concept that they would try to realize through grandiose arranged orchestration. And make no mistake, I’m directing a considerable amount of the blame at Warner Brothers here: aside from being false-copyright flagging hacks who for some reason gave these brothers a budget – I blame the bath salts – you can tell that someone pulling the strings was directing a project that didn’t just fit for commercials, but operated a perfect tune to swipe all of those twenty one pilots and Jon Bellion fans who think those records are ‘their life’ and are so lit fam and all the rest of the horrible millennial slang those crocodile fuckers think we use. So if any of the Clique or Bellionaires are watching and don’t hate me enough already for the past few years of reviews, if you’re looking for a fresh target for pitchforks and torches, listen to this album and realize that this is what Warner Bros thinks you like – this is what they consider ‘relatable’ and ‘so deep’ to you, they are literally banking on that shit and that connection for you to buy this album.
…I’m going to assume most of you aren’t going to turn this video off and listen to this noxious scrotal discharge, so I’ll just assume you’re offended and move on to the matter at hand – because at the end of the day, AJR did choose to make The Click and give the overstuffed middle management industry hacks another yacht or lump of cocaine… and folks, I’m not kidding about this, I’m angrier about this album than I was Rae Sremmurd, Thomas Rhett, Chris Brown, will.i.am, Lana Del Rey, and Shawn Mendes combined – mostly because it brings together elements of all of those plague dispensers into one pulsating abomination. The braying idiocy of Rae Sremmurd, the genre-fusing naked calculation of Thomas Rhett, the mercenary commercialism of will.i.am, the pretentious and horrendously framed melodrama of Lana Del Rey, the noxiously awful production of Chris Brown to say nothing of the autotune-assisted falsetto that’ll drive dogs to run off bridges, and from Shawn Mendes, the feeling of deep-seated disappointment that maybe this band could have created something that might have had presence or power! But at least Rae Sremmurd has ‘Black Beatles’, Lana Del Rey might actually release a good album in a few weeks, will.i.am has ‘I Gotta Feeling’, Chris Brown has to live with being Chris Brown, Shawn Mendes has the eventual realization working with Teddy Geiger will ruin his career, and Thomas Rhett has that Ed Sheeran rip-off and working once with Maren Morris – I don’t see anything that redemptive about AJR, even a collaboration with Rivers Cuomo that reminds me of Weezer’s mid-2000s work in the worst way possible – and even then, he at least had enough self-awareness to dive headfirst into irony!
Because here the thing: after I finished listening to this I thought it had to be a spoof, a parody of awful overblown indie pop music, a sanitized pastiche for younger audiences, the off-brand TV pilot version of some product Disney outsourced to a Vine flameout. But no, what’s so fucking terrifying is that someone greenlit this writing, and from interviews the band seems to back it up! I’ve read season five Glee fanfic with more engaging and fleshed out character and dramatic stakes – and say what you will about all of Glee’s technicolor trainwreck, you at least got the feeling that Ryan Murphy had some vestige of creative vision and a sense of wit to anchor the character derailment or nonsensical motivation. AJR, meanwhile, wants to ground its emotional drama in a mingled ripoff of Blurryface and The Human Condition but has the emotional intelligence of a Lukas Graham b-side. But even that’s not adequate to describe what a total clusterfuck the emotional throughline of this record is, none of it played with any subtlety or deeper pathos or darkness or a sense that any of the brothers had experienced any of the non-existent drama they’re trying to sell. It’s actually a little alarming how any form of graduate-crisis is flimsily articulated, and then demanded of the audience to feel sorry for them and relate to them through the sort of transparent self-deprecation that is as smug as, well, your average Ryan Murphy character. Because this isn’t a case where the band feels like their artistic integrity is compromised by success or that there is any sort of pressure to compromise – and even if it was, the fact they were allowed to do everything they did on this project proves that would be a lie – no, this is simpler, more where the choice is between popularity and following one’s personal artistic drive. Okay, on the broadest possible level, if you strip away all of the nuance this is an analogous throughline to an album like Blurryface, you could find artistic parallels.
The problem is that immediately thematic cohesion goes out the window from track to track, because it doesn’t engage with this choice so much as it tries to provide itself excuses and justification for not making any choice – in other words, if we’re going to get philosophical, the very definition of acting in bad faith. Take ‘The Good Part’, where he’s wondering if he could just skip past any decision or choice at all and just get to the success or fulfillment – the problem is that not only does it make you look like a whiny, entitled twit, it’s got none of the self-awareness to acknowledge that engaging with the problem is what will make us fucking care. And ‘Weak’ has a similar problem: it’s asking us to preemptively justify a non-choice or a wrong choice, and it’s asking us to celebrate it! This is the guy who gets the participation ribbon and is trying to celebrate it as if he won – and it completely guts any sense of tension in the main conflict when he’s willing to do this! And you know, there is a part of melodrama that can justify making stupid, witless decisions for the wrong reasons and watching the fallout, but without any sense that AJR is going to face consequences, there’s nothing to anchor any of this!
And thus when this album tries to get us to engage with AJR’s ‘problems’, it feels privileged and myopic in the extreme, the sort of early 20s fuckwits who if they whine to mommy and daddy that they got a hangnail they get the keys to another Ferrari. So when you get a song a like ‘Drama’, where they’re whining how everyone seems so fake and playing up their problems and all his friends are so loud, and yet you then without irony or self-reflection include yourself as loving it too, it becomes a self-perpetuating loop, an ouroboros of bullshit that reminds me of Drama Alert and Keemstar! Wait, you know… I’ll take that back: Keemstar actually had balls, whereas this record is so damn deluded that on the next song he’s wondering why the love he has for some anonymous figure doesn’t feel right, or to quote him, ‘I grew up on Disney, but this don’t feel like Disney’. And yes, the writing across this record is all that skin-crawlingly atrocious, but it’s not even relevant – they’re about my age, and yet Disney was subverting and twisting their own love stories as early as the Renaissance! No, what the song really reads like is so fucking disingenuous it makes me want to throw something screaming from a small skyscraper, planting the implication that he wants her to stick around but he’s going to change because that love is not really feeling right, and she shouldn’t grow up before he does! But wait, it gets worse, because then we get ‘No Grass Today’, which of course is about weed but comes to no real conclusion or statement at all, on the hook saying he didn’t smoke because he had to perform, so why interfere – where the key word instead of ‘so’ is ‘but’, but then in later verses he sees people wanting to fight to legalize but he says it’s of no concern to him – doesn’t that fly directly in the face of his hook? Or take a few songs later where we have ‘Call My Dad’, where in between hooks where he’s lonely and wants to go home he’s trying to talk about how grown up he looks because he tucked his shirt in, or how he still managed to see many bras, or how when he found a place to crash he forgot his retainer – seriously, how old is this dude, ten and a half? Or take ‘Netflix Trip’, where the band steals a melody from Jon Bellion and spends the song tying various moments of his life to seasons of the American version of The Office – seriously – and yet in the final verse he tries to assert he’s bound up so much of his life in the show that we should validate it – even despite one of those real life moments being his grandmother dying!
But that song actually highlights a line that deserves some attention, on the hook: ‘who am I to tell me who I am’. You heard that right, a guy who is trying to be so self-deprecating and detached that he refuses to acknowledge his own role in defining himself! And it’s not just here: ‘I’m Not Famous’ is a cheery, upbeat song about nobody knowing who he is and how he has no haters – another tracks that seems intentionally neutering the drama of any decision, and make no mistake, by the end of this review you will have haters for SO many reasons. And then you get the utterly noxious ‘Three-Thirty’, where he nakedly contradicts himself by noting he’s ‘helpless without attention’, and that ‘wealthy people learned their lesson to never donate without the press there’ – in other words, more evidence of these guys wanting validation for acting like privileged shitlords – and then saying ‘so I’m thinking rappers, they got it easy’. And yes, I get they’re trying to say if they rapped than they could say more faster – which I don’t get why they just don’t do, it would not be uncommon – but between that and the interview where they described ‘Drama’ as having a Kendrick Lamar-style beat, they act like they’ve not only never heard hip-hop, but want to appropriate the style and buzzwords for more flimsy justification. And speaking of hollow branding, then we have ‘Bud Like You’, where the band goes to a party, where everyone hates the same things, the girl who’s hosting doesn’t want to be there, they don’t how or why a disco ball works, and yet it’s all anchored that they have a ‘bud’ like you. It might as well be a commercial jingle for Bud Light Lime, except if it was ever presented the marketing director would make everyone in the corporate office commit seppuku. But again, let’s circle back to that central question between going mainstream and following an artistic path – is there an answer, is there even an attempt to engage with the question? If anything it sounds like AJR would rather never answer the question and then ask for you to validate that attention-seeking non-answer. An album that will detach itself so fully from any vestige of reality or self-determination, and then ask for you to look and celebrate them doing it, even though they don’t ‘want’ to be famous.
And here’s the infuriating part: that’s the text of this record, the words being presented, and if you had the right singer who could justifiably anchor the whole detached ‘I’m smarter than you’ routine – maybe Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, or the guys from Sparks – or an artist who could lay on the sarcasm vocally, like Josh Tillman or Mark Kozelek, or even someone who is so disconnected from reality that it could be justified, like Beck on one of his more warped records… look, it would be utterly insufferable, but I would get it. Two problems, though, the first being the writing of this album is unbelievably basic – there’s no attempt at deeper metaphors or insight or witty turns of phrase to highlight added intelligence – and the second being the delivery. Yes, we’re only now getting to the actual music on this album, and make no mistake, it is just as much of a lubeless gangbang as the writing is. And it starts with the vocal delivery and the framing: there’s nothing to redeem or add subtext to this record because when these songs are performed, there’s not a shred of deeper poignancy and consideration in the delivery, something that would imply the singer understands the asinine implications of his words. I’d say the straightfaced sincerity would imply parody, but again, there’s nothing in the text that supports such an interpretation! What’s worse is how there’s no real dimension to the delivery here either – all the plasticity of a made-for-TV Disney movie but somehow even less range. At least Lukas Graham had vocal idiosyncrasies, and Tyler Joseph and Jon Bellion showed a deeper underlying melancholy beneath their belting, but here? Passion, sure, but badly misplaced and often propped up with more autotuned caterwauling than anyone needs or wants, like Andy Grammer but without the grit. Oh, he can try to get a little more subtle – ‘Call My Dad’ is the sort of autotuned a cappella ballad for which Imogen Heap should really sue, but what nearly always ruins it is the multi-tracked backing vocals, which fall somewhere between Train frontman Pat Monahan at his most punchable, several dying cats, and a bad crooner on pain medication trying to sound like all of a child choir. And when you include that spine-tingling sound – coupled between pitch-shifting and chipmunk vocals as if this record wasn’t dick-shreddingly gross enough – you have a vocal performance that is direly convinced of the importance of an event in the lyrics but having no sense of the proper emotion to include.
And then there’s the production – and on first glimpse, you could be forgiven for at least saying that AJR has some vestige of a unique sound, a fusion of piano bar doo-wop, soul, trap, dubstep, and even folk. And if that kind of made you wretch in the pit of your stomach at the presence of a monogenre clusterfuck, this is before I tell you that you can’t hear a bass guitar on this record to save your life. That’s right, the only thing we get that’s even close to a groove is the stiff, programmed, badly blended percussion that has no significant low end but for some reason splits apart all of the grandiose horns and strings in order to fit some sort of stomping rhythm. And what blows my mind is that the horn fidelity isn’t even consistent – for some reason ‘Three Thirty’ uses these breathy flutes and fake horns that sound like a prolapsed anus and the contrast to the rest of the record is jarring! And that’s before you get into composition: nearly all of these songs have the structure of building to a chorus and then you would expect a drop – but half the time the drop doesn’t even happen leaving all the buildup leading to nothing and the other half you wish the drop and everything else in the immediate vicinity had never happened either. I’ve already talked on Billboard BREAKDOWN about perhaps the weakest possible pitch shift on ‘Weak’, but let me put it like this: this an autotuned, scratching scat breakdown on the song ‘No Grass Today’ that honestly makes Noah Cyrus’ ‘Make Me (Cry)’ sound good! And against all of it, there’s no texture or production blending, or the feel like any of these instruments were recorded in the same country let alone the same room, and with no adequate mix depth to let these sounds grow or swell, all the bombast becomes painfully forced. I get it, bedroom production, but both Frankmusik and Bleachers record in confined spaces and they give their songs weight and dramatic swell that this record seems to want but has no idea how to attain. The most I can praise is the guitars on ‘Sober Up’ and ‘Bud Like You’, but in the former case they take a backseat to the cello – which completely makes sense for a song with Rivers Cuomo on it – and in the latter it’s to make a trap-inspired Irish drinking song that even Ed Sheeran would consider a bad idea!
Oh, and one more thing – that scratching, scat-like breakdown? There isn’t just one on this record, there’s four, all with the teased vocals, unholy screeches, and yet the sense that it’s still not weird or discordant enough to fall into meme territory – just a triplet of guys trying to replicate the utterly pedestrian formula of the Chainsmokers and somehow failing!
And you know, I could go on, like how on every single song you get at least one flubbed rhyme, or how on ‘Three Thirty’ it tries to make the assertion that if Ed Sheeran had written their songs he’d make them hits – which given the quality of everything else on display is doubtful – or how none of this garish instrumentation hits with any sort of edge or real color and just feels more like a migraine wrapped in a suppository, but here’s my ultimate point: I have no idea who this is for. Again, you might not have liked twenty one pilots’ dalliances with reggae or Jon Bellion’s attempts at hip-hop, but they at least knew their way around a groove and production with bite and a writing that wasn’t seeking to blow itself, and I can only imagine the fans of both acts will think this is too safe to really enjoy. I get why this record exists – music executives pushing brazen ripoffs is nothing new – but what really sinks this beyond ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ is that there’s no ironic appreciation I can glean from it, not even functioning as a decent parody because that would imply it has to have some sort of clear target! What it feels like most clearly is utterly mindless, the sort of paper-thin annoyance that only becomes more excruciating with every nanosecond of thought you give it, the sort of music that inspires relatives faint embarrassment and a desire to change surnames to escape association. At least you could point and laugh at Angelic 2 The Core, or if you’re looking to commit suicide Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven offers a particularly dire soundtrack. This… you can’t even laugh or kill yourself effectively to it, because it’s a record trying to have depth and meaningful swell about a sophomore struggle and yet winds up a contradictory non-statement with no tonal consistency, writing that would get you laughed off of Tumblr, and vocals that would embarrass your average fetus. In other words, 1/10, and unless Sam Hunt comes around to somehow break the spacetime continuum by putting out a worse project, by far the worst record of the 2010s. Fuck this record, everyone at Warner Brothers who bankrolled it, fuck the culture that enabled it, and if you inflict this on anyone, fuck you too.