In Brief: A sorely disappointing follow-up to a solid debut, with an irritating lead single that you’ll likely hear just about everywhere. File this one under “What the @$&! were they thinking?”
Well folks, the first massive disappointment of 2012 is upon us. I was gonna beat around the bush with a flowery intro about how much I loved fun.‘s debut album Aim & Ignite, and then let the reality of my dis-enthusiasm for their new album Some Nights gradually sink in, but the honest truth is that sometimes, you figure out pretty quickly that you don’t like an album, and the dislike sticks, no matter how much you try to give the band the benefit of the doubt. There’s simply no spinning this one. The best I can do is try to mitigate the initial knee-jerk response that I had an replace it with a lasting realization, upon listening more deeply to these songs and trying to get over the sad surprise, that the songs just aren’t strong enough to support the tomfoolery.
Tomfoolery was the general rule on Aim & Ignite, which was a delirious pastiche of power pop sounds referencing many decades gone by just as well as it represented the baroque excess prevalent in indie music today, bringing both halves together in amusing ways that never quite seemed to pull the same gimmick twice. Some Nights, by comparison, almost seems to let the gimmicks carry the song. During the three years in between albums, apparently they’ve been listening to a lot of hip-hop, which is not a bad influence for pop or indie music to have on the surface, but instead of taking away the sophisticated beats and cleverly constructed rhymes, they seem to have decided instead that overly glitzy drum programming and auto-tuning the otherwise talented Nate Ruess to death were the best complement to their sound. Throw in a bit of Queen-inspired melodrama, and occasional hints of the multi-instrumental sound that made their first album so lovable, and you get an off-putting mixture that’s an awful lot like making a smoothie with coffee, lychee, and garlic in it. These are all flavors that I love individually. Together, no two of them (let alone three!) can be combined in a remotely appetizing way.
The songwriting has also taken a turn for the worst, I’m afraid. Plenty of the songs on Aim already had a sort of devil-may-care attitude, but at times they seemed to be pointing sarcastically at their own excess, making it clear that this small band with their obviously parodic posturing – see “All the Pretty Girls” or “At Least I’m Not as Sad (As I Used to Be)” – had no aspirations to be seen as genuine rock gods. Plus there were the genuinely sweet moments like “Light a Roman Candle with Me” or “The Gambler”. Some Nights feels downright bitter when it isn’t busy being utterly silly. Even the few moments that attempt to be inspirational feel vapid, like it just isn’t the band’s strong suit. I would say that their mixture of sounds is still unique enough to stand out, but given that the big new hit anthem, “We Are Young”, has gotten them considerably more notice than any of their past work, it’s become clear that just having the shell of a slick, happy sound gets the job done and therefore they don’t have to dig much deeper for an audience raised on television shows about singing teenagers to like them.
Still, as I’ve soldiered on and tried my best to give Some Nights a fair shake, I’ve discovered that it’s really the front half of the album that leaves a horrible taste in my mouth. The second half, while still inconsistent, is worth hearing, and I’d say they even close with an epic tune worthy of their first album, which finally manages to do something fun (yes, fun!) with the excessive Auto-tuneage. So there’s still a small glimmer of hope for this band. But sheesh, getting through that front half is a real test of my patience sometimes. You’ll see what I mean.
1. Some Nights Intro
Quiet piano and gentle, polite applause get us started – you know it isn’t fun.’s usual M.O. to start with a ballad, so if you’re expecting this to blow up into something ludicrous, then your suspicions will pay off within about 20 seconds. The band plays their knack for theatrical melodrama to the hilt here with what is essentially a showtune, exuberant backing vocals and baroque instrumentation and so forth chiming in loudly to accentuate Nate’s angst. What’s he so angsty about? Some sort of split personality disorder that causes him to be wildly inconsistent from one night to the next, apparently. He’s bent up and bitter about it enough to drop two f-bombs during the first two minutes of the album, which is notable because on Aim & Ignite, they saved the album’s lone profanity for the final song, where it had the most emotional resonance. Interestingly enough, the over-the-top nature of this song makes it feel like more of a finale than an intro, especially because it doesn’t end in any way that forms a musical bridge to the title track. it’s just an off-kilter start however you slice it, which I guess is fitting given its lament: “Oh my God! Have you listened to me lately? I’ve been f*cking crazy!”
2. Some Nights
Much like “Benson Hedges” on the first album, this song chimes in immediately with a strong chorus of voices, instantaneously hammering a pretty solid hook into our brains. It’s heavily Auto-tuned, though I don’t mind that so much as an intro, since it gives it a sort of “Bohemian Rhapsody” feeling. However, the song in general has much more of a Paul Simon/Vampire Weekend vibe to it, with a “world-beat” rhythm that seems quite snappy at first, but when you combine this with the digitized backing vocals, it eventually starts to weigh the song down. What should be an exciting tune sort of flatlines midway through as a result of this, despite the band’s best attempt to throwing everything they can think of at it. The excessive Auto-tuning is a bummer here – if used more sparingly, it could create a clever call-forward to a song later in the album (note the line about “seeing stars”), but having Nate deliver such a spirited, non-tuned performance early in the song makes it lose a bit of gusto when they turn on the device later and nearly every element of the song is coming from a computer at that point. Nate also seems to have a bad habit of trashing a song just when it’s turning into something poignant and sensitive – “This is not one for the folks at home/I’m sorry to leave, mom, I had to go/Who the f*ck wants to die alone/All dried up in the desert sun?” At this point, if you’d never heard the band before, you’d be likely to assume that they’ll be similarly potty-mouthed on every track (which, thankfully, they aren’t). I can live with a well-timed Precision F-Strike when it helps the song, but in both cases thus far, it’s just gratuitous.
3. We Are Young
Well, this one probably needs no introduction. It’s the song that put fun. on the map, largely due to Glee‘s decision to co-opt it as some sort of angsty teenybopper anthem. Some routes to fame just aren’t worth it, you know? Still, I can’t hate the song due to its mere association with Glee. Fortunately there are plenty of other reasons to hate it, the first among them being that starts as a completely different and far more upbeat and interesting song before switching gears completely. The first verse and chorus have a fun drum beat, some rapid-fire lyrics from Nate (in which he’s trying to find some deeper meaning in a social outing gone horribly wrong when his friends are “in the bathroom, getting higher than the Empire State”. This suddenly shifts gears into a slow, sensitive verse, which is essentially the intro to the real song: “So if by the time the bar closes/And you feel like falling down/I’ll carry you home.” From there it launches into a turgid, mid-tempo chorus, with uninspired drum programming and piano plinking away on the same note in as irritating a manner as possible as every voice that was apparently available chimes in: “Toniiiiiiiiiiiight/We are young!/So we set the world on fiiiiire!/We can burn briiiiighter than the sun!” The bait-and-switch is just mind-boggling here – a fragment of a descriptive, intriguing song has now been replaced with the most generic “You can conquer the world!” anthem possible, and of course this would have to be how fun. scores a radio hit. The song has surprisingly little to say for a band that is normally so specific and verbose, and no matter how forceful the chorus of “na na na”s might be that gets thrown in near the end, or the amount of cross-genre cred the band might be courting by tossing in a guest vocal from Janelle Monáe (which amounts to her singing “Carry me home tonight” a grand total of four times), it can’t cover up a terrible, middle-of-the-road song idea. This is one of those tunes that struck me as merely decent at first, but the more I hear it, the more I end up hating it.
4. Carry On
Now this is a much better way to approximate a rousing bar tune that gets the audience to sing along. Due to the acoustic guitar, the 6/8 time signature, and a bit of strings and tin whistle and accordion, there’s almost a hint of Celtic flair here. Of course fun. doesn’t quite play that influence straight, due to the drum programming, synths, a bit of vocal sampling, and a gratuitous electric guitar solo that show up later in the song. But it’s their own bizarre concoction, and it’s a relief that the weird combination of sounds actually makes me smile rather than making me want to strangle their producer. At the end of the day, the message of the song still appears to add up to “We don’t know what the future holds, so let’s seize the day by enjoying a few drinks and going back to my place”, but the soaring chorus sure sounds like it aspires to be something far more inspirational and transcendent. I’m probably inclined to make something more of this tune than just the fun little ditty that it is, because it is literally the only thing in the front half of the album that I think is worth a damn.
5. It Gets Better
“What have we done? Oh my God!”, a distorted voice pines over the most constipated electronic beat imaginable, immediately sabotaging the goodwill built up by “Carry On” and making me think, “You know, that’s an excellent question.” This is by far the most insipid, grating, ridiculous waste of space that fun. has ever dared to call a “song”. I would have never considered them capable of approaching such a level of stink just mere months ago. But here I stand, horribly corrected, as fun. proceeds to crap out the most inadvisably irritating Hellogoodbye impression imaginable. I’m talking the old days, when HGB tinkered with electronics and Auto-tuning and lame in-jokes, and sure, I found some of that actually enjoyable at the time, but over five years later, there’s no way it’s even a remotely novel sound for any band to want to imitate, so it could only possibly work as self-parody. Since there’s nothing intentionally funny about these lyrics, which meander between the generic (the repetitive chorus, which only serves to remind us that it has, in fact, gotten much worse), and the truly baffling: “It’s hard to lay a golden egg with everyone around.” There isn’t a second of this that sounds like the work of a real band. The vocals are Auto-tuned to the point where they might as well have sampled Nate Ruess singing the alphabet and pieced it all together from that, and the “drum” beat might as well have been a preset on Wesley Willis‘s keyboard. Even with all the electronics stripped away, this would still be an obnoxiously vacuous pop/punk song unworthy of the company of even average bands from its own genre.
6. Why Am I the One
Hey, that’s kinda clever. The first album has “I Wanna Be the One” which was a cute little baroque pop love song, and now we’ve got the flipside of that question… which is unfortunately, a saggy breakup ballad. These guys have an actual drummer, right? So why is track after track obsessed with drum beats that sound about as powerful as galoshes stomping in mud puddles? Certinaly this is not why they brought a hip-hop producer on board. On top of that, the song can’t quite make up its mind about the tempo, already skirting the line of medium-paced boredom with the verse, but then slowing down just to sabotage a chorus that might have otherwise had some semblance of catchiness. it just isn’t fair – there’s so much potential for theatrics in Nate’s dejected question “Why am I the one always packing all my stuff?”, but the band’s so busy sabotaging their poppier tendencies that no amount of gratuitous orchestration can save the song from the doldrums. I’m not saying the song should be upbeat and zippy, but if you want to create a feeling of displacement and never being satisfied in one place for too long, then the song needs to have more of a sense of movement to it. The outro is definitely interesting, with the orchestration melting into synthesized keyboards that gradually speed up and collide with the next track (this is once again a call-forward to the album’s finale), but it has precious little to do with the rest of the song.
7. All Alone
This is the first of the poppier tracks that I’ll actually admit to enjoying. The bouncy piano and trip-hop-inspired beat succeed in creating the sort of offbeat “partying on the outside, but thinking deep thoughts on the inside” sort of mood that fun. excelled at on Aim & Ignite, without sounding at all like they’re repeating old tricks. The song revolves around a souvenir, a dinky little toy that reminds Nate of his dear departed mother, and nobody else (including a disgruntled girlfriend who shows up in the second verse) seems to understand his connection to it. If not for the chorus plainly trumpeting “I feel so all alone!” right in your face, it’d be easy to miss the lonely metaphor entangled in the otherwise gleeful stampede of sounds. I’m amused, and I also feel a bit of the songwriter’s pain, and those are generally the two elements that I’d expect from a successful fun. song.
8. All Alright
Oh, cut it out with the crowd cheering at the beginning of songs already. It’s probably only the third time they’ve used the trick thus far on the album, but I figure that’s the kind of thing you can get away with once, maybe twice before it starts to get old. The band’s newfound tendency to sprinkle synthesized sounds and clunky drum beats on top of everything sabotages another song that gets caught in the middle between sensitive ballad and crowd-pleasing anthem. I want to be amused by Nate’s denial: “I got nothing left inside of my chest, but it’s all alright”. But as he recounts a string of careless, flash-in-the-pan relationships and a belief that everyone he loves is gonna leave him, I find any sense of sympathy that I might feel for him slowly leaking away. It’s too bad, because vocally, this is one of his better performances (with no Auto-tune intereference that I can detect), and whoever’s manning the string and horn arrangements and going for baroque is doing a great job, so it sucks that the song turns out merely average despite all of this.
9. One Foot
Now this one has such a strong hip-hop influence, could almost be the oddball track on a hip-hop album where the rapper actually sings. There’s this metallic varnish to Nate’s voice that reminds me of Eminem or Kanye West trying to sing, and surprisingly, this turns out to be a good thing. It’s a bit Auto-tuned, but there’s enough genuine force and emotion to it that it serves the song well. A very catchy drum-and-cymbal loop gives the song an excellent backbeat and a repeating horn fanfare almost seems to herald the announcement of a divine revelation. Too bad that revelation essentially boils down to the broad-sweeping bashing of religion: “I got friends locked in boxes, that’s no way to live/What you’re calling a sin, isn’t up to them/After all, after allI thought we were all your children/But I will die for my own sins, thanks a lot/We’ll rise up ourselves, thanks for nothing at all/So up off the ground, our forefathers are nothing but dust now.” This almost torpedoes the song, along with a sensitive, piano-driven bridge that doesn’t really fit with the rest of it. Thankfully it saves itself with a triumphant key change at the end that makes a seamless transition into the album’s grand finale.
Realizing what a great finale – and what a great song in general – this was took a lot of forgiveness due to the reuse of ideas that bombed horribly earlier in the album. It’s all there – the annoying crowd cheering at the beginning, the gratuitous Auto-tune, the drum programming removing any indication that this would work well as a live performance, even the band’s strange tendency to build up something interesting at the beginning of a song just to tease you before they snatch it away and do something completely different for the rest of it. Yes, in spite of all this, I consider “Stars” to be a high water mark for fun. For one thing, it tromps through its garden of sounds more smoothly and effectively, starting off with the sort of guitar solo that makes you expect a blazing rock anthem, turning corner into peppy, hand-clapping pop music that builds sound upon sound until it finally collapses into a seemingly endless R&B/funk vamp. The thing is, that’s where the song really pulls out all the stops, somehow redeeming the band’s unhealthy obsession with Auto-tune due to Nate’s uncanny ability to still sound emotional and soulful despite the waveform of his voice being sanded off into a bunch of conspicuous right angles. He glides up and down the scale with increasingly ridiculous fervor, to the point where it’s actually quite amusing listening to how the software handles all of the pitch-shifting. If funk bands could play around with this sort of stuff in the 70s, I don’t see why fun. can’t take it for a spin for five minutes and change. The song also brings a sense of thematic closure to the album (though admittedly, it doesn’t take a genius to toss off references to the sky and stars throughout an album and then title your final track after it), rebuking any sense of celebrity status that Nate might feel and reminding us, he’s just a lonely guy trying to make ends meet and spending his nights missing his folks. Awww. This does get a bit pessimistic during the vamp, as he repeatedly urges, “No one’s gonna save us.” Despite that, it’s the willing deconstruction of self that makes it interesting. I’m sure many will disagree, finding the song to be excessive in every imaginable way, and thus making it tempting to hit the skip button and end the album. Truth be told, I still believe several tracks on Aim & Ignite to be superior to this one. However, I think it’s a stronger album closer than “Take Your Time (Coming Home)”, and by the standards of Some Nights, it’s absolutely (forgive me for this) stellar.
11. Out on the Town
You might get this one as a bonus track if you purchased the album digitally. I don’t believe it’s on the actual CD. That’s actually too bad, because while it’s not amazing (mostly just another synthpop exercise heavy on the post-party soul-searching), it’s easily better than half the album. Another strong (albeit digitized) vocal performance and a fun synth hook give it a solid identity so that it feels like something more than a tossed off B-side. Perhaps it was left out because the band had already harped too heavily on the whole “What have I done?” theme and the feeling of being too far gone to be saved. But it marries the band’s pop, rock, and hip-hop tendencies quite nicely, and aside from the unfortunate line “So I can learn to live with all the stupid sh*t I’ve been doing since ’99”, it’s actually reasonably well-written. (Nate goes on a bit about knowing he could be more clever. Why couldn’t he have come to that revelation during the rest of the album?) If for some reason you got the album without this track, and you’re disgruntled with most of it, this one might help restore your faith in fun. just a little bit. If you actually liked the album, however, this would still fit into the surroundings well.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Some Nights Intro $0
Some Nights $.50
We Are Young -$.25
Carry On $1
It Gets Better -$1
Why Am I the One $.50
All Alone $1.25
All Alright $.50
One Foot $1
Out on the Town $1
TOTAL WITH BONUS TRACK: $6
Nate Ruess: Lead vocals
Andrew Dost: Backing vocals, piano, guitars, bass, keyboards, synthesizers, percussion, other assorted instruments
Jack Antonoff: Guitars, trumpet, drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.