There's No Good Time for Bad News
If you hear it straight from the Maine, it almost sounds like they sold out with their debut album.
Indeed, with those early AltPress hits at the end of the aughts, the Maine may very well have been a boy band that just so happened to write their own songs and play their own instruments. They played well to the younger SuicideGirls crowd, brought in the angsty tweens, and despite their swooping, edgy haircuts, still managed to be painfully inoffensive, the band still standing out from their peers due to the fact that they could write a pop hook better than most. Even when an AltPress Readers Poll garnered their 2010 sophomore set Black & White Album of the Years honors, the band realized that no matter how hard they tried, they were playing to a very set subgenre, and while sometimes the inhabitants of that niche crowd could score a fluke pop hit (Breathe Carolina, Hot Chelle Rae), the trail the band was heading down was bleak. An elder statesman like Max Bemis or Gerard Way came along only once in a seismic shift, and the group realized that if they wanted to be a “real” band, they’d have to do it on their own.
Released independently, 2011’s Pioneer was designed to be a more “serious” effort, and while the album was sprawling to a fault, the group really felt a lot better not having to answer to a label (or make another painfully cliched music video), and what’s perhaps most surprising was the fact that even with this moodier outlook, they could still craft some six-string masterpieces, and while not everyone was on board (it was their lowest-charting album by a wide-margin), their core fanbase was still along for the ride, and this Arizona quintet was still more than happy to play well-packed venues, making their own business decisions, and still making music their full-time jobs.
Yet once you’re successful on your own, where do you go from there? With Forever Halloween, the band’s latest, it’s obvious: keep on pushing until you have an album that’s more “classic rock” in feel than “flavor of the week”. Even when they jumble their execution (which is often), you have to admire their unrelenting ambition.
For their fourth album, the band decided to further push their bid for respectability even further by getting the Raconteurs’ Brendan Benson to produce. It’s a surprise move, and Benson certainly has cred to his name; not just with helping his buddy Jack White but also with his own solo career, one bona fide power pop classic to his name (1996’s One Mississippi). Even with that, Benson is known more as a songwriter than a producer, and when it comes to handling The Maine, his approach is relatively hands-off, simply removing a lot of the grit that covered Pioneer and softening the band’s corners a bit, honing in on a sound that’s much more genuinely pop than any of the band’s previous poses.
Things open simply enough with the hand-and-drum percussion of “Take What You Can Carry”, which is a nice MOR rock tune using Joseph & Mary’s night in Bethlehem as fertile ground for singer John O’Callaghan’s ambling lyrics about the music industry, persevering, and selling out.
While there is nothing on the album as dramatic or striking as Pioneer‘s “Misery”, the group still manages to pull out some nice tricks from their wheelhouse, even if they don’t hit every bullseye. “Run” is designed to be the instant-pop guitar rush, but a poppy guitar hook is actually undercut by a too-aggressive bassline, leaving the rest of the track locked in somewhat of a murky middle-ground, unsure of which direction to go. “Kennedy Curse” revisits some angsty strums from the late-90s alternative boom to somewhat generic results, and “These Four Words” quietly acknowledges every rock band’s secret desire to have at least one Elton John-styled ballad in their catalog None of these songs particularly stick melodically (over time, O’Callaghan’s lyrics have proven to be a better draw than what the rest of the band could muster musically), but they are passable diversions, illustrating that the Maine still have a higher batting average than a lot of their pop-punk brethren
When things really work, however, they really work, and often in unexpected ways. The shifting tones of “Happy” (which uses a gloriously understated woo-ooo in the opening) actually have a nice casual hookiness to them, while the joyous tune “Sad Songs” could not be more generic in tone yet so brilliant in execution, that almost deliberately-cheesy synth lead-line leading to a chorus that may very well have been pattered after Jellyfish’s debut. Take in the hushed mid-tempo workings of “White Walls”, the slick dynamics of “Fucked Up Kids”, the well-executed rock-by-numbers single “Love & Drugs”, and it all comes into focus: the Maine work extremely well when they’re aiming right for the middle. Too slow and they get drab, too fast and they lose the plot. They have found a perfect pacing with their songwriting, and it is decidedly down the middle—there is no shame to be found in it when the songs are so enjoyable.
Yet even when you look past the hackneyed title track and the too-expected L.A. kiss-off “Birthday in Los Angeles”, what really shines through is the increasingly quality of O’Callaghan’s verse. While he sometimes touches on topics a bit run-of-the-mill emo (“She kisses my scars as she carves out my heart” he pleads on “Kennedy Curse”), there are moments when his word play is quite evocative, carefully minding that line between the relatable and poetic, never flooding his notebook with as many too-precious darlings as Ben Gibbard does. Just take the opening bit from “Love & Drugs” as a prime example:
Sophisticated mood swings
We got champagne taste
But not enough money for the real thing
We got flames in our veins
And just enough money for the weekend
On the album’s eponymous closing track, the band draws out a tired melody over five-and-a-half-minutes, making a “statement” that comes off more as a B-side to Oasis’ Be Here Now, with O’Callaghan’s voice reaching that pained-sounding falsetto that just comes off as forced instead of actually pained. However, even with all of these hindrances, the song, much as with the band’s latest stab at credibility, actually work when the lyrics are taken into direct consideration. In the chorus, he points out those little details: “Kids in costumes / Dressed like in kings & queens / Little monsters walking down my street / In this place I’ll be anything but mean / So you be brave and I’ll still be 18.” Meaning can be drawn out and extolled, debated and meme’d to pieces, but as the indulgent guitar solos flail about, the band’s words sink in greater than any other element. Forever Halloween isn’t a sweeping success, but it’s a worthy album, and who knows: with the machinations in place now, they just might wind up releasing that one truly great album yet—and, as is the case these days, entirely on their own terms.