April 28, Neotheater by AJR
Total Number of Tracks: 12
Songs you might know:
– “Birthday Party”
– “100 Bad Days”
– “Dear Winter”
My prior relationship with the album: AJR’s preceding album, The Click, might just be my favorite album. Ever. I know, I know. You’re supposed to say it’s something like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But if I remove all cultural norms of what the “great albums” are, and think strictly about what connects to my soul and moves me on emotional levels I didn’t know I had, the answer is AJR’s The Click. I’ve seen the band live twice, and have seriously considered spending $225 on a VIP ticket package that would allow me to play either Pictionary or dodgeball with the band. I am, as the kids say, an AJR stan. (Are the kids still saying that?)
All this is to say that Neotheater had some pretty big shoes to fill. I deliberately decided not to listen to any of the songs that were out ahead of the album release so that I could experience the whole thing at once, though there may have been a song or two included in their setlist from a show I attended. I don’t really remember. I was having a rough week when the album dropped, and it came through when I needed it most. I’ve been loving it ever since, and have been nagging people I love to listen to it as well.
My impression this time around: I was worried that Neotheater wouldn’t be able to live up to my super high expectations, but AJR did not disappoint. They’ve reached this amazing yet paradoxical point where pretty much any song they do still feels like a brave new exploration of what pop music can be, but yet exactly what I might expect based on their prior work. Songs like “Birthday Party” prove that the band is still unafraid of unconventional lyric concepts. Songs like “Turning Out Pt. II” prove that the band doesn’t need all the bells and whistles to make something beautiful. Songs like “Dear Winter” prove that they can do both of these things in a single song.
AJR also has a real knack for finding themes that are universally relatable but for some reason haven’t really been explored in music before, or if they have they haven’t been done quite the same way. “100 Bad Days” is a great example of something that feels authentic but empowering, and is something most people can relate to, but yet no other pop artist has done an empowerment anthem quite like this one. It’s one of my all-time favorites of the album. We also get “Don’t Throw Out My Legos” which is about being afraid to grow up, while simultaneously being excited for new opportunities. And who can’t relate to a lyric like “I’ve been so good, where the hell is the karma?” which comes from another album high point, “Karma.”
Neotheater also stands out in that it is more than just a set of songs that are far above average. It really works together as a cohesive piece of art. There’s a recurring theme that’s reminiscent of the opening credits on a 1940s Disney movie. They do a great job of bringing this in just often enough that you notice it, but it also never feels like they’re trying too hard to make you notice it. That, plus the narrative the songs tell make the album feel theatrical, as the name might suggest.
You can tell the band really thought carefully about what kind of journey they wanted to take the listener on. Earlier songs explore the naïveté of youth (“Birthday Party”) and gradually the songs start to feel more and more mature. Later songs explore the conflicts that come along with actually attaining some success, one of my favorites being “Beats,” which talks about the over-commercialization of the music industry and the temptation to sell out, all in a nuanced, but catchy AF way.
The whole album all culminates in my personal favorite track of the entire album, “Finale (Can’t Wait to See What You Do Next)” It’s an incredibly cathartic song that’s about being proud of what you’ve accomplished so far, as well as the fear that perhaps you’ll never make it any further. By far, this is the song I’m most likely to play on repeat and belt at the top of my lungs while I’m driving. I’m just realizing as I type this how that brings the album full circle, since the first track, “Next Up Forever,” is ALSO about the fear of hitting a peak, and not having anything to look forward to after that.
The only sort of negative thing I have to say about Neotheater is that it has a few forgettable songs that aren’t bad, but fall flat compared to the other masterpieces that populate the album. “Break My Face” is a fun, but relatively typical AJR song. “The Entertainment’s Here” provides a nice narrative transition from naive youngster to bonafide pop star, but is nothing I would go out of my way to listen to on its own. I actually had to double check the Wikipedia in order to remember that “Wow, I’m Not Crazy” is on this album, that’s how forgettable it is. I really want to emphasize that all of these are GOOD songs, yet on a full album listen, they give me this weird “oh yeah, I forgot about this song” feeling. I don’t get excited the way I do when I get to “100 Bad Days” or “Karma” or “Beats” or “Finale (Can’t Wait to See What You Do Next).”
Who would enjoy it? I think if you have heard and enjoyed even a single AJR song you’ve heard before, you are going to fall head over heels in love with Neotheater. It beautifully captures everything the band is good at without feeling like a rehash of prior material. Even if you’re not so familiar with the group, I think it’s a great pick for anyone that wants catchy pop music that isn’t overly generic and still has the lyrical complexity that’s all too rare in the pop genre.