If you name your band fun., your albums better damned well be.
A couple years back a record made its way to me through the folks at Popdose. It was a brilliant piece of pop confection called Aim & Ignite by an indie “supergroup” of sorts. Led by the Format’s Nate Reuss with keyboardist Andrew Dost and Jack Antonoff, the guitarist and frontman for the exceptional New Jersey pop rock band Steel Train, that album was fraught with rock tropes done right. It was upbeat, catchy and at times — like during “The Gambler” — it could downright make you cry.
After releasing Aim & Ignite, fun. signed with a new label, Fueled by Ramen, went on the road and, sadly, doubled down on all the wrong things.
Their new album Some Nights just came out this week, and it’s everything it’s not supposed to be while being everything the band wanted it to be.
Some Nights starts off promisingly enough. The familiar themes abound. The Queen influences, the multiple time signatures, the hooks, the ear candy of Reuss’s vocals. Trouble is, while Reuss wears his influences (Queen, hip-hop, ’60s pop, Elton John) and his heart on his sleeve, more often than not these two things work against each other.
It’s one thing to sing about life as a musician on a song like “Stars” — it’s actually sweet and melodic, and then it takes a horrible turn into Auto Tune, which made me wish I had gotten the album on vinyl so I could rip it off the turntable and toss it across the room.
See, when Nate led the Format, they put out a pair of fantastic power pop records — the best of which, Dog Problems, was one of the best of its kind of the last decade, easily outdoing Jimmy Eat World in songwriting, catchiness and musicianship. When he launched fun. it was obvious he and the band were going to push the boundaries of what a three-piece made up of a lead singer, guitar and piano could do. They brought in a ton of session players and crafted an album that owed as much to George Martin as it did to Queen and indie rock.
And then they doubled down.
It doesn’t happen right away. The title track is hooky, by gum, and it calls to mind Paul Simon’s Graceland in every good way that Vampire Weekend does not. And, like a good piece of pop, you can follow along before the song is over. That’s what good pop songs are supposed to do.
But the band betrays their true intentions on the next song, the hit single “We Are Young.” Effectively two catchy but incomplete songs mashed together, the song has a monster chorus that won’t leave you for hours or days after you hear it. Normally that would be a good thing, but, for me, upon closer examination, I started to wonder: First off, the song showed up months ago on Glee. As an episode closer it was odd and also exhilarating for a song by a band I had been following to get out there and hoping would find a larger audience, and Glee certainly propelled the track to “hit single” status. And when I heard it, I mean, really heard it, the song became a mainstay in our house. But it never escaped me that, while it was titled “We Are Young featuring Janelle Monae,” Janelle Monae sings four words, four times. And that’s it. She’s there to help them sell units.
Fine. I’m not from the old school where you’re supposed to hate bands for “selling out.” I don’t cotton to that. I want my favorite band to jump into the stratosphere and sell millions of unit. I’m not possessive. I’m happy to say, “I knew them when.” But, when the earworm has finished winding its way through the brain, you’re left with just an empty carcass of an anthem designed specifically to sell a lot of units so they can play bigger venues and get everyone to raise their hands and “Radio Ga Ga” themselves into bliss.
Nate and the boys aren’t the indie U2, despite how much they seem to want to be taking that mantle — and if a song is just there to be an anthem, a la “We Are the Champions,” it better be as rallying as Foxy Shazam’s “Unstoppable” or it’s not worth your money.
This track, arguably one of the three best on the record (the others being the Timbaland influenced “One Foot” and the title track) should have been true to its Phil Spector roots, but instead it’s the sine wave of pop songs: You hate it and then realize that the reason you hate it is because it’s ear candy and so good at being it that you love it and then you hate it for making you love it and then you give in to the love and then after a moment you come to your senses, hate it again and then you’re so exhausted you can’t remember if you like it or not, but it doesn’t matter because it’s stuck in your brain.
For me, the saddest part of the Some Nights experience is that you can tell that these guys know their way around a song. They know how to bring the joy, because they’ve proven that in the past. But, when their obsession with experimentation gets in the way of delivering on their promise, it’s an exercise in masturbation and excess and the result is the track “It Gets Better,” which might actually be a good song if it didn’t end up sounding like Death Cab for Cutie being raped by Kanye West. Why the Auto-Tune, boys? Oh, because every indie band eventually gets bored and falls in love with hip-hop. It’s the Rivers Cuomo disease.
It doesn’t work here.
Some Nights is not a great record. If you hear it, most of it will sound like it’s a good record. But it’s joyless and soulless. It’s weak because it panders to its audience. It’s sad because it wants so badly to be “important” and a rallying cry.
For someone who loved the Format and Steel Train and fun.’s first album as much as I did, Some Nights is a crushing disappointment.