[15 September 2008]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
It begins with one of the biggest bangs in recent pop memory.
“Untouched”, the lead-off track from Hook Me Up, the second album from Australian twin siblings the Veronicas, announces itself in mere seconds, as crashing strings jump out of the speakers, then, abruptly, they stop. Then they crash again and stop again, a tension-filled dead silence filling between these quick orchestral stabs. Soon, the synth-strings repeat over a frenzied two-tone beat, the momentum appearing instantaneously while immediately establishing the Veronicas as a force to be reckoned with. Few tracks—especially on post-millennial pop albums—demand such attention right from the get-go, but, really, straying from the formula is the Veronica’s entire MO.
It would be easy to dismiss the Origliasso sisters (Jess and Lisa) as tawdry teen-pop pinups in the same vein as dreck-slingers like faux-lesbian Russian duo T.A.T.U., but what makes the Veronicas different has always been their adherence to flawless pop melodies—most of which they actually wrote themselves—and lyrics that are as biting as they are insightful. Their debut, 2006’s spectacular The Secret Life of the Veronicas, unveiled a group that was able to craft radio-ready guitar pop that was as smart as it was instantly pleasurable, first pile-driving you with hooks before the lyrics actually begin to nest in your mind, the subtle brilliance of their words appearing afterwards. Certainly, pop-guru Max Martin had a strong hand in the girls’ first disc, but the sisters were well-established well before Martin came into play, penning hits for artists as diverse as Australian Idol winner Casey Donovan and Miz, an excitable Japanese pop star. This, of course, was all before the Origliasso girls turned 20. Though Martin deftly guided the startlets through Secret Life, it’s this sophomore album that ultimately will prove to be the make-or-break statement that the girls are shooting for, the disc that will establish them as stars in their own right or leave them wounded victims in the Top 40 pop wars.
As one listen to Hook Me Up proves, the scales can still tip either way.
Whereas Secret Life was built upon unabashed post-Avril guitar rock, Hook Me Up is built almost entirely on slick electro-beats and heavy synth washes, the girls now smuggling their affecting breakup anthems right into the middle of the dance floor. Their subject matter, however, is largely the same, dealing almost exclusively with unrequited loves and bad breakups. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with this, there are just some songs on Hook Me Up that either sacrifice lyrical clarity for the sake of a good hook (the title track) or just wind up pandering to listeners with overwrought generalities (“I Don’t Wanna Wait”, the very T.A.T.U.-esque “I Can’t Stay Away”). Most of these weaker moments hit right in the dead center of the album, killing Hook Me Up‘s early momentum far too soon, these weak tracks all blurring together in one dizzying haze, as if designed specifically to soundtrack the movements of cold strobelights in the middle of a sweaty club.
As disappointing as Hook ‘s middle section is, though, the rest of the disc is bolstered by some of the best songs that the girls have ever penned. Though there’s nothing as immediately gripping as “Untouched” on the rest of Hook, there are moments that easily surpass it in terms of sheer quality. The excellently-titled “Revenge is Sweeter (Than You Ever Were)” starts with a lonely guitar figure that’s then bolstered by a gradually building backbeat, the ascending chorus capturing that sense of hopelessness that is felt when confronting a love that just doesn’t acknowledge your existence:
Are you even listening when I talk to you?
Do you even care what I’m going through?
Your eyes stare and they’re staring right through me
You’re right there but it’s like you never knew me
Do you even know how much it hurts?
You gave up on me to be with her
... Revenge is sweeter than you ever were
With these semi-confessional lyrics played over an addictive chord progression, the girls could almost pass as heirs to the intelligent pop throne that Robyn currently sits on (or, at least, they could open for her on tour). “In Another Life” is also seemingly deceptive, starting off as a tender wedding day piano ballad before the song hits the half-way point and the girls bring in their heavy-metal guitars, destroying the romantic mood while actually strengthening the emotional sentiment of loving someone so much that the you can’t actually stand being with them. Even the gloriously trashy “Popular” seems fueled entirely by dance floor sweat, being both ridiculous and confident in equal measure, all making for a glorious conclusion for an album that is absolutely full of Hooks.
When all is said and done, Hook Me Up is a confident if flawed sophomore disc, showing the Veronicas desire to move beyond their trademark sound while occasionally doing so at the cost of playing to their songwriting strengths. It features some of the most bland and uninteresting songs that they’ve ever penned, a sad fact that is even sadder when you consider that those songs are partnered with some of the best tracks the girls have ever made, some of which (“Untouched,” “Revenge Is Sweeter”) even outclass previous high points like Secret Life‘s flawless anthem “When It All Falls Apart”. The end result is no doubt frustrating, but, really, once you look beyond the lesser tracks, you find that Hook Me Up is actually the product of one of the best pop acts working today… it just hurts that you have to put in some effort to discover that fact.