The snare and kick drum launching Matt Pond PA’s flaccid new full length, The State of Gold, welcomes listeners to a featureless landscape. The lumbering 4/4 time signature could be the foundation of “We Will Rock You” or any number of generic stadium-aspiring pop rock songs from the last 40 years. A shuddering synthesizer rises into the frame, giving the opening measure a fleeting sense of momentum before singer-songwriter Matt Pond extinguishes it. “I never meant to blow the fire out,” he croaks by way of introduction, “Some of us stumble with our mouths.” The irony here is palpable: if there was any flame beginning to spark in the early moments of this LP, the band’s eponymous leader just blew it out.
This is the story of The State of Gold. The arrangements, while deeply unadventurous, aren’t nearly as offensive as Pond’s artless lyricism and plodding delivery. He blurts out saccharine platitudes as if they had just occurred to him in the studio and no one else had the good sense to suggest sleeping on it. “There’s more than one way to live,” he groans on the chorus of the title track. Excruciatingly, he continues: “There’s more than one way to love / There’s more than one way to give.” At this point, six songs deep into the thing, listeners should be be numb to this sort of lyrical oafishness. (After all, they were told nearly 20 minutes ago that “some of us stumble with our mouths.”) Even so, it’s a tremendously difficult roadblock to navigate. Pond tends to pulverize these lines into oblivion, repeating them as cringe-inducing choruses until they begin to sound even more meaningless than they did the first time.
In order to pick up the slack of these dreadful lyrical misfires, the music should be better than inoffensive. But, despite the occasional suggestion of an actual idea, “inoffensive” is the name of the game on The State of Gold. It fulfills the dark mandate of the adult alternative genre, encouraging listeners to consider the virtue of all things beige. There’s no point of view here: no heartbeat, no content. It’s a series of presets, arranged to resemble something a marketing strategist might call “indie rock”. At its most innocuous, The State of Gold sounds like music made by a fictional band on a TV show (Parenthood’s Ashes of Rome comes immediately to mind). At its most insufferable, it sounds like commercial music circa 2006, made in-house at an advertising agency by someone whose niece just introduced him to the Killers.
Songs like the U2-channeling “Take Me With You” are the biggest offenders on this score. In a move typical of the lowest moments of The State of Gold, that song washes its unremarkable instrumentation in a bath of reverb designed to hide the fact that the band’s paint-by-numbers approach amounts to a whole that doesn’t sound quite right. A twinkling guitar is supplemented by a pulsing synth pad, laid over a pounding drum beat one can only imagine is played with a single hand while the other gestures to the crowd. “It feels good to be young,” Pond depressingly insists, yawning over a non-descript anthemic arrangement that sounds more geared toward selling imported compact cars than creating anything approaching genuine feeling.
Exceptions to the rule — like album standout “History of Canada”, with its percussive buzzsaw synth, or the dynamic and textured instrumentation of “The State of Gold Pt. 2” — shine brighter than they would in a collection of otherwise competent songs. “In the history of Canada,” Pond sings on the former, “There never was a mention / Of how we fought out on the sidewalk of the Drake Hotel.” Finally, there’s something resembling an authentic emotional detail. Specificity, as John Hodgman reminds us, is the soul of narrative. Someone should have shared that wisdom with the Matt Pond who shows up on The State of Gold’s other 12 songs. Elsewhere, he stubbornly colors the album’s arena-sized approximation of human beings from a monochrome palette, in what sounds like an ongoing game of Dad-Rock Mad Libs. The result is mystifyingly boring and scrubbed completely of any evidence of human touch.
The State of Gold is Matt Pond PA’s 11th LP, and the group’s first for long-running emo/pop-punk label Doghouse Records. This is the Ohio-based label that brought bands like the Get Up Kids, Piebald, and Limbeck to the disc changers of suburban teens across America in the early 2000s. Releasing this new one from Matt Pond PA seems to be Doghouse’s misguided attempt at offering what might be described as “music for grown ups”. The record itself seems to buy into that. The State of Gold wants badly to be a harbinger of warmth, wisdom and maturity. It wants to be a big, bold, and beautiful collection of songs that make personal experiences universal. It wants to emote. It wants to connect. Ultimately, though, it’s just wanting.