Matt Sharp's side project-turned-band is back, and they sound just like most of you remember them. But is that really such a good thing?
When most of us first heard of the Rentals, they were regarded as little more than a pleasant distraction, a stopgap for Weezer fans wondering when Rivers Cuomo would finish up at Harvard and get to making a new album. What many people missed was that Matt Sharp was a crack songwriter who managed to craft a distinct sound for himself on Return of the Rentals, and after Weezer’s second hiatus following the commercial failure of Pinkerton, Sharp showed that his project was more than a mere novelty with the excellent Seven More Minutes. Unfortunately, Seven More Minutes didn’t get the respect it deserved (it still hasn’t), and Sharp spent his post-Weezer years wandering in the musical wilderness, releasing a mopey singer-songwriter record before reconvening the Rentals for an EP and this new album, Lost In Alphaville. It could have been a chance for Sharp to pick up where he left off in 1999, but sadly, Lost in Alphaville finds the band more intent on recapturing the novelty of their early work rather than trying to move forward.
Right from the outset, it appears as if Sharp is searching for comfort on Lost in Alphaville. Opener "It’s Time to Come Home" repeats its title over and over, as if the mantra will have a Wizard of Oz-like effect. That search for comfort was always a part of what Sharp wrote with the Rentals, but Alphaville tries to create an environment of comfort for itself rather than strive for external calmness. The synthesizers on the album, which were used to evoke technologically-driven paranoia in the past, are enveloping and soothing here. Granted, Sharp’s obsession with technology has never exactly been forward-thinking, but it’s still surprising to see just how fully he commits to electronics as comfort fodder. What’s even more surprising, though, is that it mostly works.
Aesthetically, Lost in Alphaville is very pleasing. Sharp still has a clear idea about what works for the band and what doesn’t, and most of the album consists of the former. First single "1000 Seasons" is a clear outlier of what to expect here, and it boasts what is easily the album’s strongest hook. There’s also "Damaris", which presents a subtler take on the melodrama that opens the album. Taken in a vacuum, there’s plenty about Lost in Alphaville that’s worth hearing.
Unfortunately, this album wasn’t made in a vacuum, and after listening to it several times, I can’t help but think that Lost in Alphaville is an attempt by Sharp to rewrite his band’s history. Were this the band’s debut, it would be a very promising album, but Sharp’s been down this road before. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with him -- or anyone else, for that matter -- trying to make an album like Return of the Rentals, but it’s still something that’s been done before. What’s more, Alphaville seems to ignore the strides made on Seven More Minutes. If Sharp were serious about the Rentals being a functioning band again (and it seems like that’s the case), then he’s being a little unfair by ignoring a crucial part of the band’s history.
For all of its problems, though, Lost in Alphaville is still a welcome return for an under-appreciated songwriter. Sharp always seemed most at ease in a band setting -- the singer-songwriter look just didn’t suit him -- but he was always strong enough as a composer to move out of the long shadow that his tenure in Weezer has cast over the rest of his career. Any first-time listener will probably glean that there’s more to Sharp than the falsetto backing vocals on "Say It Ain’t So", but Rentals boosters probably won’t be able to shake off the fact that Lost in Alphaville is just way too familiar for its own good.