Listen to “Be Calm” on fun.’s Aim and Ignite, and you will be forgiven for thinking it was written for Zach Efron by Gerald Way in a jester’s suit. The album marks a (fun) sojourn for Nate Ruess, former frontman/vocalist of the Format, currently lying dormant if not dead. For Aim and Ignite picks up where the Format’s Dog Problems (2006) left off—the latter a feel-good carnivalesque sing-along that knowingly put the kibosh on erstwhile label Atlantic’s entreaty for marketable indie pop. Indeed, the self-released Aim and Ignite lands somewhere between Queen, the Mars Volta, and the soundtrack from Hairspray, and so is pretty original to say the least. Long gone is the guy who was once chided for hiding behind a Goo Goo Dolls-like anonymity. Aim and Ignite finds Ruess blazing in his own skin with plenty of chutzpah and jazz hands.
fun. was formed when Ruess decamped to New York from his native Arizona and hooked up with ex-Anathello flugelhorn-playing assorted percussionist Andrew Dost, and Jack Antonoff of guitar quintet Steel Train. Still, fun. is essentially Ruess’s vehicle. Just consider the similarities between its debut and Dog Problems. Both brim with sleekly-produced baroque pop songs filigreed by a cornucopia of horns, violins, organs, and spectral backing choruses. Ruess’ confidence on both betrays some fragility, making even the most sarcastic of his heartbreak songs endearing. A point of difference is that Ruess’ dark past (which includes the near death of his father), dissected on Dog Problems, has found a precarious resolution on Aim and Ignite. This album does little to expand on the breadth of musical styles explored by the Format. Instead, between the album’s chamber pop and balladry and the odd multi-instrumental extravaganza, Ruess drowns at the cheesy end of theatrical pop—something he skilfully skirted on Dog Problems.
“Be Calm” inaugurates the album with a serenading violin and French accordion. Gentle guitar strums and swirling strings then vie for attention, as does a vortex of high-pitched woodwind and a boastful horn section. Ruess, attempting to assure himself that he has made the right move to NYC, assumes a histrionic, vaguely menacing warble as the song progresses. But just to inform us that he hasn’t ditched his past entirely, the track sheds its elaborate coat for some good old guitar punk, topped by the vocalist reaching an impressive sky-scraping catharsis. As expected of any piece of musical theatre, there’s a lot involved here. But at no time is any note or instrument out of place, nor does it ever sound profligate. In fact, the song displays a winning formula as heard on (yet again) Dog Problems, whereby a fastidious orchestration sounds remarkably effortless and catchy to boot. In terms of musical choreography, it doesn’t get better than this.
The sky then opens with “Benson Hedges”, which was originally used to bait Ruess fans before the album was completed. Its title might reference the singer’s chain-smoking habit as he is wont to do in songs past. (He does so here again on “I Wanna Be the One”). But according to absolutepunk.net, it takes in Ruess’s favourite movie, The Baxter, a light paean to the nice, sensitive guy (aka himself) for whom the dream of being happily hitched remains just that. The song begins with a shout-to-the-heavens chorus, by the end of which you will think Ruess’s latest fixation is gospel rock. But then a pretty standard indie-pop number with dancing keyboards, piano glissandos, and strings ensues. Still, it’s wound tighter than many other tracks here.
In fact, fun.’s song-writing prowess is most evident on the album’s more understated tunes. “Light a Roman Candle with Me”, for instance, is a delightful piano-led ditty which recalls Sondre Lerche and talks about diving into the cesspit of love with eyes wide open. The song is particularly interesting for its deft incorporation of Queen-like “oohs” and “aahs” and what sounds to me like the gentle workings of a lap steel guitar. “Walking the Dog”, meanwhile, charms with its island balminess, which is shot through by dirty guitar. Taking the cake, though, is “The Gambler”, a unique heart-rending ballad. For someone already given to opening up, Ruess paints a portrait of his family from the point of view of his mother, and allows himself to take solace in the sturdy love that binds his parents. Forget the bile he threw at lovers that wronged him and all they stood for on Dog Problems, because now: “He thinks just like his mother, he believes we’re all just lovers, he sees hope in everyone”.
Before these tracks, though, the listener is taken for a ride to the album’s nadir beginning with “All the Pretty Girls (on a Saturday Night)”. It’s bad enough that the song concerns Neuss wanting to get over a girl with, yes, all the pretty girls, and inevitably fails (poor sensitive soul). But when buttered up with Queen-like vocal and guitar harmonies, the song doubles its efforts to make chintzy fodder for a second-rate teenage musical. Similarly inclined, “I Wanna Be the One” features “ba-da-ba-da"s and a stomach-turning chorus: “Now for all the steps you’ll take and all you’ll overcome / I wanna be the one to put in a song / Take every single tear for all the world to hear / I wanna be the one to put it in a song”. Not quite had enough? Well, “At Least I’m Not as Sad (As I Used to Be)”, suffice to say, is made for the playground. And need we speak of its title?
Unfortunately, these insufferable moments, coming like a torrent near the album’s beginning, distract from more accomplished later ones to the point that their cartoonish, saccharine character makes rather lackluster everything else worth your attention. It’s like being shown a series of Andy Warhol prints alongside a series of Renoirs. Which shouts louder?
“Be Calm” set the scene for an album that failed to live up to the Format’s last outing. Dog Problems balanced experimental baroque pop with more pared-back but sophisticated song writing. With Aim and Ignite, Ruess has substituted a chance to further showcase his grasp of ‘60s-style cerebral pop for something nearing parody. It may have been fun for him to do, but not so fun for those who have to listen to it.