Listening to the Ex-Boyfriends is like reading a great line in a book, only to come across a footnote at the end. And when you track the source down, it’s another citation. In other words, this is the sound of an entire set of oft-appropriated 1980s bands (the usual suspects: the Cure, the Smiths, a legion of new-wave one-hit wonders, etc.), refracted through another set of second-generation imitators ranging from the Smoking Popes to the Killers. As such, it’s a catchy sound, and one the band delivers with consummate craftsmanship, but ultimately Dear John proves hollow: all flashy veneer, no substance.
To be sure, these Ex-Boyfriends are fastidious chaps mindful of their p’s and q’s. On the former front, we get power-pop and pop-punk, the tropes of which the band has clearly mastered. Thus songs are jam-packed with steadily-rising vocal melodies complete with “wah-ooh” backing harmonies, simple but sharply defined guitar lines, and percussion more conducive to the clap than all the band’s exes’ exes combined. Meanwhile, the q’s: the band’s publicity material makes it very clear that this polysexual trio brings the queerness. Unlike, say, Pansy Division (for whom they’ve opened), the Ex-Boyfriends avoid explicit “ring of joy” lyrics, but presumably they claim some social capital for their orientations in a music scene full of metrosexual posing. And why not: “Willingly” sounds like Franz Ferdinand’s “Michael” with a bassline adopted from Berlin’s “The Metro,” but where the “fauxmosexuals” in FF merely flirt with Michael, at least two-thirds of the Ex-Boyfriends are ready to ravage him. Depending on one’s mood and vantage point, the song is either trite and derivative, or it’s three minutes of soaring pop pleasure. The band probably deserves credit and demerits on both fronts.
Some catchy three-minute ditties and a refreshingly casual queer identity: is it enough? Sometimes. On opening track “Him For Me” singer Colin Daly busts out a Robert Smith wail and bemoans his replacement in a relationship: “He’s nothing but a stupid tramp/ Can’t keep his dick inside his pants”. The sugary-sweet melody contrasts with the spiteful lyrics, giving the song the kind of internal tension that marks the best pop music. “Relationship” keeps the pace, with its stuttered “We’re in a relationship-ship-ship-ship” sounding like a glorious outtake from a compilation of New Wave hits from 1983.
By the fifth track, though, Dear John begins to settle into familiarity. The addiction ballad “Well, William” tracks a character who might well have crawled straight out of a Smiths song. But as the Moz said, it’s really nothing, falling short of the emotional pull its refrain seems to be striving for. “Stop, Drop, Rock ‘N Rock” is one of those ideas whose self-evident lousiness should have been recognized before it was forced into song form, and the album concludes with four consecutive filler tracks, leaving a bland aftertaste.
Still, even as Dear John begins its descent into dullness it manages to offer the power-pop bliss of “P.S.”, wisely saved for track seven to prevent the album from winding up entirely front-loaded. And a ratio of four (maybe five) would-be hit singles to four filler tracks, with a few more sitting on the fence between the categories, isn’t bad at all for a pop album.
Everything on Dear John has been done before, though the Ex-Boyfriends generally do it well. As background music—something to dance to, or blast while you wash the dishes—this can be pretty stellar stuff. When it comes to sitting down and engaging with it critically, the album offers far less. You can see how they earned their status: they’re fun to have around, good for some laughs and bit of pleasure, but when it comes to committing to a relationship with them, well… Dear John, indeed.