You can almost picture the scene: inspired by the unprecedented success of chart-bothering ballad-lite “Hey There Delilah”, teens flock to the record store for a larger portion of inoffensive, but admittedly catchy, acoustic yearnings. Glancing over the latest offerings from Damien Rice and Ben Harper, their eyes light upon Stop, the re-released debut album from Delilah’s erstwhile admirers Plain White T’s. Disc bought, it’s home for a debut play, and eyebrows are raised. There’s no gentile confessionals, no nostalgic strummathons, nary an acoustic guitar in sight; just, alas, another pop-punk—sorry, um, “power pop”—band with a hatful of girl-related vendettas even more tired, clichéd riffs, and sunny vocal harmonies. Checked and checked again—no, it’s not a misplaced Jimmy Eat World record—the disc is reconciled with its box and Harper finds his reprieve.
And so it ends for the consumer, at least, and for the passive listener. For the music critic, however, there remain repeated spins of the disc; minute upon futile minute of hoping in vain for a radical change in direction; of half-hearted scouring for something redeeming—something to justify this re-release. But in the end, it is a cynical one, an undeserved and unnecessary second helping of a mediocre album, contrived to capitalise on the current success of its creators. Even Stop‘s initial purchasers don’t escape these marketing techniques, mind: lumped on the end of this version are three unreleased demos. Here, one might be inclined to suggest they are unreleased for a reason, but in truth their standard varies little from the cuts that were deemed good enough for Stop‘s first release.
And yes, their chosen genre puts them at an immediate disadvantage in appealing to anyone who has already transcended school age and exposed themselves to a world of cultural multiplicity; a world not just of drink, drugs, and sex, but of politics, art, and social diversity. But while music has largely moved on from its brief pandering for pop-punk, this is not a singular restriction. Love them or loathe them, there was logic behind the likes of Blink-182 and Sum 41’s rise to prominence amid an overpopulated scene. Their songs were catchy, their lyrics, if puerile, were witty enough, and their musical ideas, though hardly radical, were sufficiently individualised to breed distinction. Plain White T’s—at least circa Stop—have none of these qualities. Instead, they are banal and indistinct. Theirs is music that you’ve heard before but can’t ascertain where. This should come as no surprise, given that a change of direction was needed to the band to make their breakthrough.
Perhaps what is most detrimental to Stop is vocalist Tom Higgenson’s choice of subject matter. Primarily an account of Higgenson’s first serious relationship, the album is consequently ridden with the teenage angst and emotions that accompany events of apparent importance during youth, before maturity brings realisation of the ultimate insignificance of first girlfriends; of teenage social lives and all their trappings. And this is fine. This is part of growing up. It’s just there’s no need to re-release the documentation of this growing up, several years on, especially when it has the effect it does here. Stop feels tired and trite as a result—not just as a result of its musical derivation, but because of its lyrical subject matter also. Gone is the bouncing energy which pop-punk thrived and relied on. When Plain White T’s do energetic, it is with tinged with whiny lamentations that suggest the direction their music would take. And lyrically, Stop is clunkily clichéd at best, and sickening at worst, as on “A Lonely September” (“I didn’t mean to fall in love, but I did/And you didn’t mean to love me back, but I know you did”).
That said, Stop‘s better moments are in fact its more contemplative. Despite its lyrical shortcomings, “A Lonely September” suggests that Plain White T’s do Dashboard Confessional-style emo better than they do pop-punk, while “Shine” provides further evidence that they would be better off sticking to the mellower side of things. But there are not enough of these moments to bring reprieve. Instead, there are a plethora of tracks like “What If”, a cringeworthy three minutes of power-chord led self-examination (“What if nobody likes me/What if I don’t succeed”) and the title-track’s identikit diatribe against some spoilt rich girl rich girl who Higgenson still clearly wants to impress. All in all, it makes it very difficult to avoid making some terrible quip about the album’s title.
As a general rule, I try to find at least something positive, however modest, to say about each disc I put my pen to. Stop, though, has me stumped. For fans of pop-punk, there are far better albums out there; for fans of present-day Plain White T’s, Stop will struggle to win any airtime on your stereo ahead of their more recent material. But then again, perhaps, there is a silver lining. All those who were unable to comprehend “Hey There Delilah”‘s runaway success: one listen to Stop and you’ll forever be grateful for the change in direction.
Stop? I pressed it long ago. (sorry).
// Notes from the Road
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