The first single from OK Go's new album is called "WTF?" WTF, indeed.
When OK Go announced that the title of their new album was going to be Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, I got a bit nervous. That was a pretty pretentious title for the band, which had previously played mostly well-written, rough-around-the-edges power pop. Then lead single "WTF?" debuted, and it was a pretty wretched chunk of Prince-lite funk. Not to mention that the band's penchant for memorable videos had finally taken them over the edge into a color-blast of a clip that was just as aggravating as the song to which it was attached. When I finally got to my first listen of the entire album, it sounded like a colossal bomb. A few more times through, though, and my attitude has softened a bit. It isn't a bad album, but it isn't a great one, either.
What Of the Blue Colour of the Sky is, though, is markedly different from the band's first two albums. Before OK Go became an internet sensation with their videos for "A Million Ways" (the dance routine one) and "Here It Goes Again" (the treadmill one) from their second album Oh No, they put out one of the best power pop albums of the (previous) decade with their self-titled debut. Full of big hooks, big guitars, and catchy choruses, the band still managed to make each track on the album distinctive. They branched out their sound a bit on Oh No, but that album was essentially more of the same. But four years and a whole lot of success seems to have changed OK Go. They enlisted producer Dave Fridmann, famous for his work with the Flaming Lips, to help them make what is essentially a rock-based dance/funk album.
The aforementioned "WTF?" kicks things off in a bad way. The song rides a fuzz bassline and simple piano melody under singer Damian Kulash's falsetto. Kulash has a strong falsetto, but the song has no real hook, and it seems like it's covered in a layer of noise and overpowering drums. The second song, "This Too Shall Pass", is a more traditional pop tune, but again it feels blanketed in noise and drums. Most of the album is like this, regardless of the style of the song. Drummer Dan Konopka's beats throughout the record are unconventional and interesting, but it doesn't seem like they should be the main focus of the songs. And yet they're cranked way up throughout. The fuzzy layer of noise makes the songs sound very similar and increases listener fatigue. In fact, it's just plain loud in general. There are musical moments throughout this album which seem like they should be quiet, but the volume never seems to decrease. I don't have the audio setup to test this, but these are generally symptoms of audio compression. And it sounds like Of the Blue Colour of the Sky may be a new contender for "most compressed album of all time", ready to go right up against Metallica's Death Magnetic for that mythical title.
Musically, the album is a mixed bag. Kulash has the falsetto to pull off convincing funk and soul songs, but the band doesn't seem to be up to it from a songwriting standpoint. The languid, sparsely arranged "Skyscrapers" wants to be a slow-burning soul tune, but it ends up just sort of lying there as Kulash moans and wails. And then it goes on and on for another 90 seconds once the vocals finish, with nothing of interest happening. The more rock-oriented "Needing/Getting" suffers from a similar ending, except in this case it's two minutes of squalling guitar noise after the song has effectively ended. "White Knuckles" wants to be a New Wave-style dance song, and it almost gets there, with layered backing vocals and great synth tones. But it's the sort of track that cries out for a huge chorus, and OK Go instead goes small, making the track exciting everywhere except for the chorus. The heavy vocodor on "Before the Earth Was Round" is about the only thing that makes that song distinctive. It's got a nice melody, but not enough to make it memorable. Similarly, the band seems to bet that going with a solo Kulash performance on "Last Leaf" will work as a change of pace. But just making it an acoustic guitar and voice ballad doesn't make it a good song.
The band does show flashes of exuberance and songcraft sporadically. "All is Not Lost" is a strong three-minute pop song that gets by with almost nothing but a great chorus. "End Love" is one of the band's stabs at dance-funk that actually works, primarily due to a great keyboard line and an innovative double-bass drumbeat. "Back From Kathmandu" is a slightly spacey, bouncy love song with an effectively offbeat arrangement. "This Too Shall Pass" is very good, and the excellent video arrangement of the song (performed live with the Notre Dame marching band) trumps the album version, which frankly doesn't say much for Fridmann's production choices. It does prove that the band still has great ideas left when it comes to videos, though. The six-minute closer "In the Glass" finds a dark groove driven by an apocalyptic pipe organ and (what else?) thumping drums.
Overall, it's tough to tell what the band was thinking here. If their intention was to branch out, they've done it, but the songwriting quality has definitely suffered. With their previous mainstream success being reliant on dance-oriented videos, maybe they figured danceable music was the way to go to keep themselves relevant. It's not like they had a huge following before their videos blew up. There's not much to connect these songs together as an album, though. It's a scattershot effort that feels as much like the band is chasing trends as following their own muse. Maybe in the future this will be seen as OK Go's transition album, but as it stands for right now, it's a disappointment.