Wow, not one good song this week. Just disappointing offerings from Muse, The Lumineers, and generic emo bands.
Muse already felt tired in 2018 when they released their album Simulation Theory, recycling the same retro-futuristic tropes they’d been peddling since their inception to diminishing returns. The same operatic grandeur, the same us vs. them chants, the same themes of authoritarian government control and mass-media brainwashing.
In 2022, not only does all this feel even more tired, but largely pointless. You only need to open Twitter to see rants against dictatorships and calls to protest policies which may or may not be handed down by demonic overlords. So what is the point of a song like “Won’t Stand Down”? Who are Muse imploring to stand their ground? In 2018 such a song would be pointedly targeted at citizens of countries under right-wing leadership. In our current year most protests are against any government imposing mandates that certain swaths of the public perceive as draconian. Is this song for them? Or is it a generic call to anyone who thinks they’re an underdog?
It’s most likely the latter. As Muse are now a legacy band, they fit right in alongside other heavier bands past their prime, and songs like “Won’t Stand Down” are ideal offerings for the needlessly confrontational blue-collar workers of the world whose T-shirts read “Don’t Mess With A Guy Who Fixes Pipes And Listens To Muse” in several different fonts.
The problem with the song, however, is not the thematic content. The problem is that the song is two songs stuck together. Much like Lorde’s infuriating “Hold No Grudge”, “Won’t Stand Down” is two disparate tracks Frankensteined into something that doesn’t even try to sound cohesive. The aggro-rock choruses are paired with verses that sound a lot like Imagine Dragons. Squelching electronic bass, hip-hop inflected vocals – they sound just like everyone’s favourite wholesome adrenaline pushers.
Speaking of which, The Lumineers ALSO have an Imagine Dragons type song on their new album Brightside. It’s not that much of a stretch to connect the two groups; both emerged from the same year with big communal singalongs for millennials. Ten years later they find their paths converging again. Although most of Brightside is afflicted by the homegrown/analog trend, there are a few modern touches which sound incredibly out of place on an album trying very hard to be rustic and organic. The electronic drums on the brief interlude “Remington” are one of those touches. The hip-hop cadence on “Where We Are” is the other. Overall it’s a pretty weak album with a major lack of hooks. The title track is underproduced and although “AM Radio” comes close to being palatable, its unconventional structure hampers its ability to really hit it big.
What is a “bad song”? In 2022 that’s a difficult question to answer objectively. Setting aside any sort of genre preferences or biases, one still needs to parse between songs that have potential but squander it and those that had no hope to begin with.
To me, the classic “bad song” – the hopeless bland mush that never had any chance at being good – has one very telltale element: the flat, repetitive chorus. One phrase utterly bereft of melody repeated four times over generic chords, used extensively by middle-of-the-road pop rock heard in grocery stores. The first example that immediately comes to mind is Goo Goo Dolls’ “First Time”; it’s essentially the definition of a bad song. Or almost any song by Bastille, who has made a living making this kind of flavourless, hook-free pap.
Indie poppers The Wombats’ new album Fix Yourself, Not The World is full of this kind of classically bad song, and another perfect example is “Wildfire”.
“She! Is! Wild-Fire!” sings vocalist Matthew Murphy in four monotone notes, failing to ignite any sort of flame in the listener.
Generic pop musicians have an unnatural talent for mining genres, isolating the worst parts of them, and then crafting songs and albums entirely out of those bad parts. When new wave fever reached its peak in the mid 2010s, you’d think I would have been ecstatic. So much of the music that informed my young adulthood was from the 80s – surely another 10 years of that would be right up my alley?
Except that most artists didn’t use what made those bands so good. They eschewed the innovative synths of the early 80s for the rubbery fake bass of the late 80s. The Psychedelic Furs, Big Country and New Order were ignored in favour of the cheesy plastic funk of INXS, Prince and Huey Lewis & The News. When bands like The Cure were used for inspiration, it wasn’t the revolutionary Disintegration era Cure. It was literally just the guitar sound they liked to use. Entire careers were made on surface level association like this (see: the awful band The Drums, or the horrible Dev Hynes produced “All That” on Carly Rae Jepsen’s otherwise solid album E-MO-TION).
I bring this up because I would like to rag on the Wombats yet again. Because not only is their album filled with bad songs, it’s also emblematic of the now-popular pillaging of 90s music hallmarks.
Manchester chord progressions are huge now, attempting to imitate Britpop without any of the spark. As is manufactured quirkiness, trying to be “Gen-X weird” without a shred of authenticity.
Basically, The Wombats’ latest album really really wants to be U2 in 1991, but they sound like U2 in 1997. The apex of pomp.
Also, industry plant Mondo Cozmo did all this already 5 years ago. He was a real pioneer in style over substance.
Alternative punk act Eve 6 has made a name for themselves in the past few years by somehow becoming “good” at Twitter. Whether it’s actually a band member or hired help, they’ve reinvented themselves by turning into a sardonic hipster account that churns out deadpan quips and gets those leftist zoomer retweets.
So it’s funny to see them actually release a serious song after this reinvention. And when I say funny I mean borderline uncomfortable. It’s like if a comedian suddenly dropped a straightfaced power ballad. Imagine eternally jovial Steve Carell staring into the camera and singing about heartbreak without a hint of satire. It’s hard enough trying to take him seriously in Foxcatcher.
Anyway, Eve 6’s new song “Get You” is pretty bad, even without the link to their hip Twitter. In fact, it’s a classically bad song; the chorus is just “I’m coming again” over early 90s alt guitar. Way to lose all your hip cred, Eve 6.
Placebo never had any cred to begin with. Relevant for about 3 years at most, the alt rockers are mainly remembered for lead singer Brian Molko’s distinctly nasal whine. Full disclosure: I genuinely like Placebo, and have listened to approximately 200% more of their work than the general population has. But even when I was listening to their work from 2009 – which was 10 years after their heyday – I wondered how much longer they could stick around for. Did they really have a cult following so strong that it could sustain them for another decade-plus?
I guess they do because they’ve got another album coming out. But I’m not writing this to comment on the generic, safe big choruses of the prerelease singles. Honestly – it’s just weird to me that nearly 30 years later they’re still going.
Nine years after the supposed “emo revival” began, there’s very little to show for it. There’s Charlie Hickey, one of the sole bright spots of 2021. But other than him there’s a lot of bland, utterly insipid bands like Pinegrove or American Football or Chastity.
Before COVID hit one of the main parts of my job was filming bands who came to perform in studio. Chastity was one of these bands. Their set was memorable because it was the only time in the history of the station’s in-studio performances that a band had to restart their song – not once but twice. Amateur hour.
The music was essentially identical to every one of the thousands of boring emo bands of the 2010s, but I held out hope for them. “Sun Poisoning” had a few hints of potential behind its nondescript post-hardcore veneer. If they just polished their songwriting, they could definitely have a breakthrough hit.
Two years later, and Chastity have totally skipped over the good part of their career, jumping right from the “shaky beginnings” phase to the “broad adult contemporary choruses” phase of songwriting. “Vicious Circle”, their collaboration with Dallas Green, sounds like a toothless country-pop ballad indistinguishable from Rascal Flatts or The Band Perry.
On the other end of the spectrum lies a track so bad I legitimately want a refund for it. Cloakroom’s “Lost Meaning” starts off interesting enough, if a little repetitive. There’s potential for the sludgy rock song to bloom into something extraordinary. Not only does it not do that, it doesn’t do anything. There’s virtually no structure to the song, and after a few identical verses it dissolves into grating noise at the halfway mark. No vocals for over half the song. No chorus at all. Something I definitely wish the iTunes preview had let me know prior to purchase. Luckily the preview did let me know that “A Force At Play”, another song from their upcoming album, is mired in dissonant tones that make it unlistenable. So I will likely never buy another song from the band Cloakroom again, because they are very bad and one of the worst bands I have heard in a long time.
Not much to say about Billy Talent’s new single “Judged” other than it’s disappointing. No sharp, angular riffs or knotty guitar work as you’d expect from the punk veterans. Just generic hard rock only distinguishable thanks to singer Ben Kowalewicz’s iconic voice.