If nothing else, you’ve got to give emo-pop quartet the All-American Rejects credit for not giving in to the temptation to turn in a track-for-track rewrite of 2006’s commercially successful Move Along. Even if their latest effort, When the World Comes Down, doesn’t attempt anything dramatically unexpected and, despite a decidedly apocalyptic title, oozes with even more of the sometimes charming and more often irritating saccharine naivety that’s marked everything this Oklahoma band has put out.
But hidden within the margins of what at first listen seems to be just another over-polished (you can practically see your reflection in Eric Valentine’s typically slick production) collection of trite sentiment for the immediate consumption of heartbroken teens, is something that resembles a willingness to push the boundaries of a stagnant genre. Sure, it’s a willingness that you’re only going to catch glimpses of before you get to any given song’s final chorus — which will always toss in an extra track or two of vocal accompaniment and some auxiliary instrumentation over some ever-so-slightly more impassioned singing from Tyson Ritter — but, hey, at least it’s there.
It’s all the peripheral bells and whistles on these tracks that make AAR’s predictable four chord melodies seem far more interesting than they actually are. While past albums have seen the band dabble in some (very) polite punk, When the World Comes Down is one that’s more concerned with ear-catching pop conceits containing anything resembling “authenticity” — and, for the most part, it comes out better for it. The chamber-pop inflected verses of “Fallin’ Apart” (think a pre-collegiate Vampire Weekend who still feel some distortion is better than no distortion), as well as the shout-along group vocals and bombastic stop-start guitars of “Gives You Hell” (think the Offspring in their mid-’90s novelty era), are all perfect case studies in unintentional camp. But it’s a sort of camp that manages to be infectious and enjoyable in spite of every analytical fiber of your mind telling you that you shouldn’t be enjoying something so ridiculously cheesy.
Inevitably, though, if you possess any sort of experience with popular music outside of the Warped Tour circle, you’re going to notice that all of the orchestral flourishes and near-choral backing vocals are stapled to some very conservative, unadventurous songwriting. The vaguely gothic elements filling the margins of “Real World” are nice (if very much at odds with the rest of the album), but they don’t do a great job of hiding the fact that you’re listening to a paint-by-numbers pop-punk song with a dull hook. Similarly, if you’ve heard AAR’s 2006 hit “Dirty Little Secret”, then opener “I Wanna” is going to sound a little too comfortably familiar.
There’s at least one point in this album where everything seems ready to fall into place: “Another Heart Calls”, a thoughtfully paced power-pop ballad that benefits dramatically from Alabama songwriting sisters the Pierces sharing vocal duties with Ritter. It’s every bit as overblown as anything else on the album, it’s very Radio Disney, and it contains copious strings and Gregorian chants (?!) — but it comes close to reminding you that, yes, if you were 14 years old again you might buy into this sort of thing.
But things don’t hold together for long — Ritter’s going to start another one-note tirade about broken hearts; the rest of the band are going to get lost under a few more miles of post-production strings and backing choirs and whatever the hell else AAR was in the mood to dress up a particular song in; and you’re going to realize that, beyond all the smoke and mirrors, When the World Comes Down houses a pretty vacuous core. If you are young and/or naïve enough to dig this whole shtick, though, you’re going to have the time of your life. Just make sure you erase all evidence of this from your iPod before you hit college.