This Is Only a Test, the second studio album from the Smoking Popes since reforming in 2005, proves that they got back together for a reason. There’s still the energy you’d expect from the guys who gave us 1994’s Born to Quit—an essential pop punk album—but the subject material here is head-scratching. The record is a concept album about the life of a fictional high school student, and it sounds that way. There’s worry over girls and college and girls and starting a band and girls. Josh Caterer’s songs prove convincing as a high school perspective, even heartbreaking in a few small moments. In the end, though, how compelling could that perspective be?
It’s not that we should dismiss the troubles of teens, but maybe we should just leave them in the hands of the teens themselves. The real trouble here is that the Smoking Popes expose an ingrained problem with pop punk, a genre in which grown-ups often play at teenage emotions. The effort here seems more sincere than that of other bands in the genre, who age physically but not mentally, but the results have the same limitations. The lucky thing for these guys is that they are still as catchy as they ever were—“Wish We Were”, “How Dangerous” and even the too earnest (but hopefully facetious) “Punk Band” all shine—so that the album is hardly a drag to listen to. The subject matter, though, is never as distinct as the hooks.