I happen to be a part of the tiny camp that believes Say Anything’s follow-up to …Is a Real Boy – a rare, once in a generation type of album – is almost as good as its predecessor.
Operative word being: “almost.”
To say that In Defense of the Genre is on par with an album that embodied the best aspects of its amorphous genre would be hyperbolic and frankly, so off-base that I’d probably have to call it quits as a music writer. So I won’t lead you to believe that. Let’s not both be foolish.
But there seems to be this latent web-based malaise for the album that I don’t quite understand.
Could it be the album’s sheer length? At 27 tracks, split between two discs (13 on this first side, and the remaining 14 on the next), it’s a behemoth
Could it have been the time gap in between the two albums? Three years is still within that strange, arbitrary period where fans of a band aren’t ‘worried’ (of, say, problems within the group, or if the band is even still together) so much as they are anxious for a new record.
And while I’m talking about it, ponder this: there’s so much to be said about the amount of time in between albums.
One year is unreasonable. Only Christian metalcore bands (like Impending Doom or For Today) do this because their material rots so quickly.
Two years is a totally plausible, normal record cycle: release, relentless touring, hibernation and writing/recording the next.
A four year gap will leave fans puzzled. So often this is associated with acts who are having major issues with their record label, or significant unrest amongst bandmates.
And rarely does a band survive a five or more year gap. If anything, they come back with a significantly different sound. Take, for example, the 5-year gap between Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. Those two records couldn’t be further apart both in theory and in application.
There is some element of that gap between …Is a Real Boy and In Defense. But the difference, I think, between the example of NIN and Say Anything is obviously the age of its fans. NIN had been around for 6 years by the time Downward Spiral was released, and Say Anything had been a band for about 4 years when …Is a Real Boy came out originally (6 years, if you count the reissue that afforded the band its immense popularity).
In both examples, the records are almost drastically different. For Say Anything, In Defense is much more mature and refined, whereas IARB was raw, boisterous in its naiveté. Topical matter on IDOTG is from a learned perspective from an older Max Bemis, where IARB was, to a certain extent, about snap judgments rather than introspection.
But again, I think the age of the two fan bases played a defining role. For the Internet age, three years seemed like an eternity, and when Say Anything didn’t deliver …Still Isn’t a Real Boy (to be followed by Won’t Ever Be a Real Boy), I think it miffed a lot of their core following.
And I’ll admit, my initial experience with the album wasn’t wholly positive. It’s a bit of a grower. If certain tracks don’t flower for you as a listener after a couple of spins, they probably won’t. On this side, the only track for me like this is “Surgically Removing the Tracking Device.”
But a genuine, honest listen brought me to the conclusion that yes, In Defense of the Genre does stand up to its predecessor. It’s a tremendous album. It doesn’t have the “star power” of IARB by any means, and that is what I think the band’s audience was looking for. Any one of that album’s 13 songs could have been a hit single. Every single track, without fail – which is what makes that record so special.
With 27 songs though, that would be difficult for In Defense, and truth be told, the same can’t be said for all the songs. While I wouldn’t dare call them “filler,” there are reasons that songs like “This is Fucking Ecstasy” won’t ever make it to your local alternative rock station.
In terms of its musicality, if you’re familiar with IARB, you won’t find many surprises here: same punk rock-influenced jams, with sporadic abrasiveness. Bemis’s vocals alternate between talk-singing and pushing so desperately to be a punk band singer. It works for him in the same way that talk-singing and yelling works for Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou. If it weren’t him, it just wouldn’t be the same.
“An Insult to the Dead” is the only acoustic-driven song on this side, and I’m thankful for that. My least favorite Say Anything tracks are ones like “I Want to Know Your Plans.” I get it, to an extent – blah, blah, love songs. Play the hits, man.
Thematically, this album has persistent religious themes on both sides, but namely on this first disc. On opener “Skinny, Mean Man,” a battle rages for the possession of Max’s soul, followed up by “No Soul” – though that’s about the band’s audience rather than his own. “The Church Channel” (featuring Hayley Williams from one of my guilty pleasure bands, Paramore) is about Bemis’s time in a mental rehabilitation facility. “Shiksa (Girlfriend)” stems from his Jewish background, and so too does “Died a Jew” (notable also for its ridiculous bass backbone)
It’s interesting to hear Max’s take on religion, not just because he doesn’t ascribe to one in particular, but because he has a unique perspective: born Jewish, throughly non-theistic on IARB, then marries into a family of devout Christians (Eisley).
Aside from his faith musings, there’s a lot here about Max’s drug use and time spent in between white walls. “Sorry Dudes, My Bad” is a perfect “Angel on one shoulder, Devil on the other” song and one of the highlights of this side.
Say Anything is one of my favorite bands, and I’m disappointed to report that this is the last great album of theirs. As I explained last month, and prior to that when I wrote about …Is a Real Boy at length, sometimes people grow up and get married and stop doing drugs and sklanking loose women.
This change affects also the topic matter and motivation for song writing, which is why instead of being the voice of reason for an entire subgenre of the independent music scene (see: “Admit It!!!”), we get bullshit like: “Sherry, we each should make a verbal agreement to only kiss each other.”
Hold on to the ones you love, I guess.
And, truth is, for me, this isn’t even the best side of the album. But, I peeked and according to this year’s list, you will have to wait until Halloween to hear why. My apologies.
From the first disc of In Defense of the Genre, this is “People Like You Are Why People Like Me Exist” –
Standout tracks: “Baby Girl, I’m a Blur” and “Died a Jew” and “Sorry Dudes, My Bad”
Weakest track: “Surgically Removing the Tracking Device”
RIYL: Post-hardcore, indie rock, alt-rock. mewithoutYou, Thrice, Brand New, Motion City Soundtrack.