[6 April 2009]
The interesting (disturbing?) thing about New Found Glory is that, despite the fact that the band is collectively approaching 30 and have no doubt had to deal with at least a few Big Issues in life, their songs still brim with the same naïve, euphoric energy that you felt when the last class bell would ring on Friday. It’s clear that this band knows what they’re good at, and they’re not about to let dreary things like “age” and “experience” darken their songwriting or compromise their ability to soundtrack another suburban teenage summer—which, in perfectly equal measures, sums up their sixth LP’s primary strength and weakness.
Given they’re one of the originators of Warped Tour pop-punk, with over a decade of experience under their belt, you’d think NFG would be itching to break out of the now-overcrowded genre box they’ve been spending so much time in. And with their past few releases, it seemed like they were attempting to do just that: Catalyst (2004), with its dabbling in everything from new wave synths to metal riffage, was the closest the band had ever come to warranting the adjective “kaleidoscopic”, and even the more conservative Coming Home (2006) added an airy, semi-acoustic edge that could have been mistaken for something approaching maturity. So it’s a bit disappointing, then, that Not Without a Fight finds the band at their most conciliatory.
Perhaps frustrated (or bored) with their just partially successful attempts at expanding their sound, NFG have gone the Metallica route, backpedaled a bit in time (in this case, arriving at the year 2000), and attempted a rewrite of the album that helped make them famous: their self-titled sophomore album. And so the sound of Not Without a Fight is pared back down to the basics of the modern pop-punk formula that the band, along with Blink-182 (Mark Hoppus even takes a break from his newly reunited band to produce this record), helped write back in their heyday: energetic tempo peppered by the occasional bouncy stop-start riff, dramatic and catchy sing-along choruses, and yelpy vocals dealing exclusively with broken hearts. It’s almost a critical cliché at this point, panning a band for failing to achieve past glories, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: NFG have largely failed to capture the alchemy that made their 2000 effort so infectious.
But that doesn’t mean they’ve made a bad album here, just a predictable one. Attempting a traditionalist record in any genre is a game of constraints, and those constraints are fully felt on Not Without a Fight. All the songs here draw from the same limited songwriting vocabulary: that shout-along part and that stop-start riff and that soaring chorus are all lurking somewhere in that next track, you know this intuitively, and more often than not you’ll be able to predict exactly where they show up with the same surety that you’ll be able to predict the next person you see walking down the street will be walking with his feet and not his hands.
So, no awards in the “interesting” category, but if NFG fail to capture the naïve vigor of their best album, then you at least have to admit that they know something about writing a good pop-punk tune. Cuts like “Reasons” (keep a lookout for the rare guitar solo) and “Don’t Let Her Pull You Down” may be far from revelatory, but they do show a band who’ve learned the ins and outs of their chosen niche and, at the very least, know how to deliver exactly what their audience expects. Sure, these 12 songs all exist in the same exceptionally narrow sliver of the already narrow pop-punk spectrum, and it would take an adroit scene elder to spot the finer distinguishing elements of each (which, of course, would never actually happen, as I’m willing to bet there ain’t any elders in this scene), but they also contain more than a bit of that innocuous, summer day vitality that you probably last experienced after your first non-embarrassing date.
You know, back when you could listen to something like NFG and feel like Jordan Pundik’s ever-saccharine, awkward lyrics (the winner here is the fantastic “It’s time I rain on your parade / Watch as all your hopes explode from landmines”) were describing exactly what was going on in your hormone-addled mind. Age and experience have certainly screwed you up a little since then, and it’s very easy to make fun, but it can also be nice to reminisce—and you’ve got to give a little credit to this band for hiding their scars so well.