OK Go successfully dips a toe into synth-rock without forgetting their power-pop roots, yet they still manage to include a small handful of outright clunkers.
It's been almost five years since OK Go put out a full album, but thanks to their skill at making internet-friendly viral music videos, it doesn't seem nearly that long. 2010's Of the Blue Colour of the Sky found the band pumping out videos and keeping themselves in the public consciousness for a full two years, culminating in the technically impressive video / 2012 Super Bowl ad "Needing / Getting". The band was back at it in June of 2014 with a new EP anchored by the optical illusion-oriented video for "Writing's on the Wall."
The release of that video prompted PopMatters' Evan Sawdey to ask "Why do OK Go's videos seem so much more creative than their music?" It is a legitimate question for those of us who remember the band's 2002 self-titled debut album as one of the 21st century's power-pop peaks. That piece got the attention of the band, and singer Damian Kulash followed up with Sawdey in a lengthy interview about the band's legacy and current philosophy.
By the time you read this, OK Go will likely have released a creative and entertaining new video to coincide with the official release of Hungry Ghosts, which will no doubt rack up several million views by the end of October. But we're here to examine the music on the album. For as much as Of the Colour of the Blue Sky was a landmark for the band, allowing them to assert their independence from their corporate record label and proving that they could create viral videos on a regular basis, the album itself was a mess. The band experimented with Prince-style funk, psychedelic pop, and beat-based songwriting (occasionally subsuming their ear for melodic hooks in the process), and the results were hit and miss at best. Hungry Ghosts, to its credit, is a much more focused album.
Instead of trying to do four or five different things at once, this time out OK Go has decided to concentrate on synth-rock while including a couple of detours into disco and occasionally hearkening back to their original power-pop sound. While keyboards have been a part of OK Go's sound from the start, it's a bit surprising to hear Tim Nordwind completely forgo his bass guitar on the majority of these songs. But that turns out to be a minor issue overall on the album, because as long as the band underpins their instrumentation with strong melodic ideas, their songs work.
Opener "Upside Down and Inside Out" is a rocker where the chorus is cranked to the maximum on everything. It has huge guitars and drums and synth burbles fluttering everywhere, complete with stuttering distortion on the vocals on the back half of the track. And yet the only time the song actually sounds better than "okay" are the two contrast sections where the volume drops down and most of the instruments drop out to focus on Kulash's singing with just a simple synth accompaniment. Also in the "big dumb rocker" category is "Turn Up the Radio", which has a stupid pop song chorus ("Turn up the radio / Turn out the lights") that recalls ‘80s hair metal one-hit wonder Autograph. But like "Upside Down", the parts of the song that work best are the quieter verses where Kulash is singing actual lyrics accompanied by Nordwind's rolling, catchy synth bass. Although this track also has a rhythmically exciting bridge going for it that doesn't sound like anything else in the song.
When the band opts for slower and quieter as a song template, they often sacrifice the huge, hook-filled chorus along the way. But that isn't necessarily a detriment. "Another Set of Issues" relies on Kulash's strong falsetto singing and a sparse arrangement with simple drums, growling synth bass, and occasional chimes. The refrain gets a little louder but doesn't demolish the feel of the song. The slinky "Obsession" surprisingly manages to nail its scuzzy, creepy tone with an array of fuzzed-out, distorted guitar and synth tones, plus a steady kick drum beat and a hint of Latin percussion. Kulash's near-whispered vocals are an effective left turn for him that pays off handsomely.
Sometimes this slower, synthier strategy doesn't work. "I'm Not Through" is a funk-style track sprinkled with ‘80s video game synths that's hamstrung by a limp falsetto chorus and forgettable verses. Disco strings and a heavily distorted disco-era guitar solo don't really do anything to help the song, because it's missing the melodic engine that makes OK Go's best tracks work. Similarly weak is "Bright as Your Eyes", which starts with an interesting, ‘50s-era oscillating synth drone but quickly slides into a cloying chorus that drenches Kulash in cheeesy strings. Of course, the failure of this pair of songs completely recontextualizes the disco pastiche of "I Won't Let You Down." That song's appearance on the Upside Out EP sounded like an effective but unremarkable ‘70s flashback. But here on Hungry Ghosts it follows the aforementioned songs and sounds like a highly energized breath of fresh air. By going all in on the disco sound instead of trying to marry it to synth-rock, "I Won't Let You Down" works perfectly as a change of pace. It's also great to hear Nordwind break out his actual bass guitar for the song.
The other tracks from Upside Out also sound very good in the context of the full album. "The Writing's on the Wall" appears second here, and it sounds like a restrained, nuanced pop song following on the heels of the more is more approach of "Upside Down & Inside Out". The epic U2-isms of "The One Moment", with its open piano chords and loud-soft-loud construction, follow "I Won't Let You Down", and the song is well-placed as the album's climax.
But if "The One Moment" is the climax, that leaves a few songs of denouement left on Hungry Ghosts. "If I Had a Mountain" is quiet and simple, with Kulash declaring his love for someone in comparison to things like mountains and oceans. The band lets Kulash's voice sell the song, and he pulls it off with a small but impassioned performance. "The Great Fire" is probably the band's most full-on synth track, with grimy bass, laser beam sounds, and high organs all living together. Too bad the band pays so much attention to the arrangement of different synth sounds that it neglects to offer a compelling melodic idea. "Lullaby" closes the album out with a perfectly fine acoustic guitar-based lullaby. It's not particularly memorable or interesting, but it's nice.
Hungry Ghosts feels like two steps forward for OK Go and one step back. There is a lot of strong material on the album, and much of it works well in the synth-rock context. A half-dozen songs on this record could conceivably be singles and keep the band going with more great videos for another couple of years. But the presence of a handful of tracks that just seem ill-conceived makes you wonder if there's anyone at the band-owned label Paracadute who can step up and offer suggestions to OK Go when a musical idea doesn't seem to be working. When you routinely take four to five years between releases, having three or four outright clunkers on your album seems like too many.