[7 March 2012]
To my frustration, I became aware of the Format (Nate Ruess’ band prior to fun.) immediately after they announced their hiatus. And it’s a real shame, because 2006’s Dog Problems, while seldom matching the artistry of its exemplars (Harry Nilsson, Jellyfish), was, at the time of its release, a singular and rather alien pop gem that supposedly transferred to a live setting wonderfully. In hindsight, it’s clear that a lot of the Format’s more tasteful leanings, not to mention the teensy bit of rock and roll spirit they did have, can be wholly attributed to the Format’s co-leader, Sam Means, who seems to have unjustly faded into invisibility since then.
Fun.‘s latest record, Some Nights, like Aim and Ignite before it, is not really a rock record, or even a pop/rock or powerpop record—there is not a single glint of rebellious, refractory energy on this record that could be considered “rock” (unless you’re counting the appropriated Queen harmonies, which weren’t “rock” then and certainly aren’t “rock” now). The ‘70s AM pop predilection, that was clearly a particularity of Aim and Ignite producer Steve McDonald’s (of bubblepunk wunderkinds Redd Kross) rather than the band’s, isn’t there anymore to coarsen the drippy compositions (if you can even believe they would in the first place).
Here, for instance, virtually everything about the “Some Nights Intro” screams “edgy radio Disney”, and in fact, if you look at Some Nights from that perspective - as idiosyncratic top 40 pop - it’s a success (although there are still artists such as They Might Be Giants and Ariel Pink, who have made more successful and far less arrogant and impassive attempts at the same sort of thing). But concentrating on it can be a huge burden on the ears. Nate Ruess’ lyrics are, when they’re feeling merciful, unremarkable, and at their very worst, seriously horrible (in the first song alone he strains to rhyme “Twitter” with “bitter”, a maneuver which suggests serious lyrical desperation), and are sung with such straight-faced Zach Efron effrontery you feel a little embarrassed for the singer.
Breakout hit “We Are Young” is no goof in the hooks department, but its alignment with other pop radio hits and the fact that it was covered on Glee are a testament to the mainstream pop comparison; it sounds stale and sterile after a single listen. “Carry On” is a ballad so ultra-cornball, it could substitute for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” if the Lion King had been made today. “Why Am I The One” begins promisingly, with a straightforward pop-punk-tinged riff, but is far from the most straightforward song on the album, and blossoms (or regresses) into a pretentious and slapdash “mini-symphony” with little coherent structure or hooks to speak of.
“All Alone” is without a doubt the best song the album has to offer and is nearly free of blemishes. It kicks off with a baroque keyboard line, and the vocal melody and blown-out drums are instantly infectious and overcoming. Sure, Reuss’ voice is going to sound so damn good whether he’s singing nursery rhymes, “Whole Lotta Love” or anything in between, but it’s going to sound best in this climate. A simplistic melody accommodates his vocals best. The first four measures of piano in “All Alright” are identical to “Home Sweet Home” by Motley Crue—an unsettling fake-out—although the real thing isn’t much better. And then here we are again, back in the nondescript pop vacuum for the remaining four tracks.
In spite of its significant mainstream, middle school-girl appeal, it’s doubtful that Nate Ruess made any artistic compromises during the recording of Some Nights. The conventional pop parasite has been inside of him all this time, and there are even moments in Dog Problems where his voice sounds too accessible to be at the front of a powerpop band. In a bizarre, inverted way, Some Nights is Nate Ruess coming into his own as a singer and songwriter. But for those of us who don’t enjoy mainstream pop, the songs were sharper when those sensibilities weren’t being facilitated.