Max Bemis is currently fronting the most important emo-rock band working today. Also, Max Bemis is a liar.
When the problem-plagued Bemis unleashed his debut album … Is a Real Boy in 2004, the members of the Alternative Press nation took a step back and asked a very simple question: who the hell was this guy? Say Anything — Bemis’ long-standing band with only one prior album to their credit (2001’s Baseball, which Bemis has all but disowned) — didn’t play by genre conventions in the least. Co-produced with Hedwig & the Angry Inch composer Stephen Trask, Real Boy was a dynamic, powerful album that was as witty and cynical as it was heartfelt and horny, Bemis frequently messing with song structure and time signature changes to make this abandoned-musical of an album something that was much more potent than the work of his peers, and — indeed — far more interesting. Even though Bemis wasn’t posting My Chemical Romance-sized sales numbers, he quickly developed a loyal fanbase and bundles of critical acclaim. There were few bands out there that could pen a song like “Admit It!!!” — which was a scathing spoken-word attack on the very hipster audience who could potentially buy a Say Anything album — and actually live to tell the tale.
With kudos and encouragement all around, Bemis upped the ante for his follow-up album, hooking up with Liz Phair/Sunny Day Real Estate producer Brad Wood to create a sprawling, guest-filled, two-disc master thesis called In Defense of the Genre. But even with more than two dozen brand-new songs and vocal cameos from Gerard Way, Paramore’s Haley Williams, and Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba, Defense was a frightfully muddled affair, alternating between pissed-off love songs and intriguing musical experiments (a Broadway musical one moment, a dance-rock hybrid the next) without much rhyme or reason. The through-line that drove Real Boy home was no longer visible, and even though Bemis’ worst songs could still run circles around those of his tour mates, In Defense of the Genre didn’t do a lot to defend much of anything — it was just another Say Anything album.
Then, of course, we found out Bemis lied.
No, it wasn’t a deliberate kind of lie, but in an AP article that came out shortly before the release of Say Anything’s eponymous third album, Bemis revealed that Defense wasn’t actually about defending emo-rock: it was about Bemis working through the end of a very difficult relationship. If we retroactively look at Defense through that lens, then the sprawling, unfocused nature of that album makes a bit more sense (even though it still doesn’t excuse the album’s obvious low-points). It seems that even Bemis himself knew that Defense overdid things just a bit, deliberately loosening himself up by later contributing a fantastic rendition of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money” to the Punk Goes Crunk compilation and recording a whole album with his hero — Saves the Day’s Chris Conley — under the name Two Tongues. Then, after years of visiting mental hospitals and storming through bad relationships, Bemis met and married the love of his life: Eisley’s Sherri DuPree. All of this, of course, sets the stage for Say Anything’s third album: would it be happy? Filled with love-songs? Free of that bitter pessimism that marked some of Bemis’ best work?
Of course not. Say Anything is a remarkable return-to-form for Bemis, relying less on the production trickery that doted much of In Defense of the Genre and instead focusing on what really counts: the songs. Humorous, self-aware, and filled with snark, Say Anything manages to cover more emotional territory than Defense ever could, as Bemis has now taken on an unexpected (yet deeply personal) target: rock music itself. Part way through the waltz-timed “Mara and Me”, Bemis stops all the music mid-verse and, speaking to both us and himself at the same time, says “Wait a second: I can’t write the same damn song over and over again”, and then completely reworks the very song that he’s in, dropping his pot shots at the Kings of Leon (no, really) to tackle bigger fish, turning the line “fake players are the ones that play the game” into a huge crowd sing-along.
Yet the self-parody doesn’t stop there. On the bouncy acoustic single “Hate Everyone” (which totally nicks its chords from the seminal punk classic “I Fought the Law”), Bemis calls out his exes, his hospitals, and rappers in general before launching into the simple chorus of “I hate everyone” and then realizing on the last verse that “I guess that ‘everyone’ includes me”, before adding “and that’s why I’m a humanist”. A spoken word breakdown greets us again near the end of “Property”, wherein Bemis — positively dripping with sarcasm — tells his girl to drop her “lofty goals” (which include “going to art school and following your dreams and whatnot”) to be with him and his band which is totally “going to make it”, saying that he can support her even if that means selling drugs to his little brother’s friends or having her and turn a trick “once or twice or seven times”, completely ripping the rock star fantasia that instigates dozens of pissed-off teenagers to start their own rock bands. Max Bemis has officially turned meta, and boy does this style suit him.
Of course, he still manages to write some fantastic standalone songs as well, like the “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too” pseudo-sequel “Do Better” wherein Bemis encourages a friend whose life is stuck in idle to get out and actually do something with his life, seeing the potential in him but getting frustrated by watching him not use it. It’s a powerful, upbeat sentiment that’s anchored by fluid string sections and propulsive beat, getting Bemis’ message across in easy fashion while at the time giving the finger to those who thought his beat-driven Defense single “Baby Girl, I’m a Blur” was the sound of him selling out (it wasn’t). Although Say Anything doesn’t have a mixtape-ready ballad in the same vein as “I Want to Know Your Plans”, the mid-tempo number “Cemetery” remains as potent a love song as Bemis has penned, as the agnostic narrator feels he can get into heaven just by being with a girl who believes in it and whom he’s very much in love with, sheepishly saying that if anyone at the Pearly Gates asks who the hell he is, she should just say that “I’m with you”. It’s all heightened melodrama, but few people can make these grand gestures work as easily as Bemis does, effortlessly crafting compelling tales about romantic doppelgangers (“Less Cute”), unrequited loves (“Crush’d”, featuring the great descriptor “you’re Bjork with better fashion sense”), and yes, even his own band (“Ahhhhh … Men”).
Oh sure, Say Anything has some flaws in it — the metaphors “Death for My Birthday” only half-work, just as how the 76-second opener “Fed to Death” proves too slight to have any sort of memorable impact — but these quibbles are minor. On his third album, Bemis has crafted one of his strongest musical statements yet, outright mocking genre conventions one second before deliberately succumbing to them the next, showcasing large amounts of self-referential humor but never once stopping to point out just how clever he is and feeding into what could potentially be a Kanye-sized ego. Instead, Bemis has something better going for him: Say Anything is the most self-conscious emo-rock band out there today, and other bands should take note, as this is how you upset clichés to make something unique without sacrificing an ounce of who you are. No, Say Anything will never be the biggest emo-rock act in the world, but they don’t need to be, because at the moment, they’re far and away the most important.