Say Anything: ...Is a Real Boy/...Was a Real Boy

[27 February 2006]

By Dan Raper

Wait a minute: wasn’t Say Anything’s debut, …Is a Real Boy, positioned as anti-mainstream as a SoCal emo/punk band can get? The whole album as operatic railing against the figure of the Artist, ambition parodied from the inside. So, why would Say Anything sign with J Records, the mega-company home of Jamie Foxx, Alicia Keys, and last season’s American Idol winner, Carrie Underwood. Max Bemis, the band’s creative center and lead singer is unapologetic too, saying, “no mainstream music fan is worth less than somebody who reads about our band on buddyhead or some livejournal… my music is not something to be owned by a core audience”. So, fine: there’s no reason to view the band’s music with any different-coloured glasses post-sellout, but let’s revisit the 2004 Doghouse release to coincide with its major label re-release.

The corollary of promised anti-mainstream punk positioning is musical complexity, and unfortunately in this vital respect …Is a Real Boy still feels like an unfulfilled boast. Zeth Lundy’s complaint from the PopMatters review first-time around is still on-the-money; he called it “ambitious anticipation rewarded with disappointing afterthought”, highlighting the alarming frequency of lacklustre choruses following well-executed setups. “Belt” still sounds like a punked-up Westside Story rehash; “Woe” has the bouncy over-the-top feeling of a Broadway musical, with a slick punch-line (“I can’t get laid in this town without these pointy fucking shoes… crushing my toes.” On power ballads like “Every Man Has a Molly”, Bemis’ voice has the raw, over-enunciated quality of SoCal punk bands like Saves the Day. 
With the potential for a twisted kind of emo comic opera wasted, the question becomes: can the bonus disc of remastered demos give us a glimmer of hope for the future? As if ridiculing us for even asking, Say Anything’s answer consists of—sex, and the prosaic exposition of love, won and lost. What traces there are of wit or insight are quickly undermined by teen platitudes, as in the chorus of “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too”—“I don’t know what I want”. It’s a shame, because what’s going on in the background of that track in particular is really interesting—no distorted guitars, it’s unexpectedly electronic, all synth-jabs and soft, rounded sound. The rest of the disc returns to the conventional punk sound and the juvenilia of the song titles, like “It’s a Metaphor Fool”, and (I’ve got to write it out) “I Will Never Write an Obligatory Song About Being on the Road and Missing Someone”. It’s easy to see why songs like inane “Little Girls”, Alkaline Trio murder-curse nod “Most Beautiful Plague”, or “Total Revenge”, an emo ballad with melodic tropes so familiar they could have been written by Matchbook Romance, were all left off the original debut release.

The saving grace could have been humour. On “Total Revenge”, Bemis laments “I can’t afford your love,” but the reason is that he is running up the bills at the psychiatrist discussing his issues. And when on “I Will Never…” he sings “I want my baby back”, you can’t help but smile. In the end, though, as on …Is a Real Boy, it’s a case of too little, too late.

The one thing is that I, sitting in a cramped Manhattan apartment, have no way of knowing the full capacity of this little, imperfect album’s appeal for the kids who listen to emo. I suppose, given the hook-up with J, we’re in for a fairly big marketing push; but either way it would be somewhat blind to dismiss the power of bleated melodic angst over the kids at the mall. And without dismissing the seriousness of it by any means, Bemis’ own emotional/mental issues seem to fit in perfectly with Say Anything’s image of emotionally complex, burdened artists. Having problems dealing with the world and our place in it is familiar to all of us who have been through our teenage years, and who’s to fault a band and a record company from parlaying that into catchy melodies? Unfortunately, the ambitious promises of revolution-within-genre will have to wait. 

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