Music

Andrew W.K.'s First LP in Eight Years Overdoses on Optimism

Photo: Cortney Armitage (The Syn)

Andrew W.K.'s first studio LP in eight years emotes in all-caps, like a motivational speech fueled by keg stands.

You're Not Alone
Andrew W.K.

Red/Sony

2 March 2018

"PARTY! PARTY! PARTY!" Could an Andrew W.K. album open up any other way? So it does with You're Not Alone, the singer's (or rather, shouter's) fifth studio outing and first in eight years. The album follows 2009's 55 Cadillac, which despite what one might surmise based on that title and W.K.'s personality was not a hard-rocking tribute to fast cars. Instead, 55 Cadillac showcased W.K.'s skills behind the piano, which while not revelatory are at the very least mildly surprising coming from a guy whose wheelhouse consists mostly of power chords and screamed vocals.

The few releases before and after 55 Cadillac -- a Gundam tribute LP, a J-pop cover record, and a collection of rarities – only reinforced its feeling out of left field. Yet for however much a detour that solo piano excursion represented, its final seconds foreshadowed the opening shouts of "PARTY!" that commence You're Not Alone: after a couple of minutes of gentle piano chords (which more than slightly recall John Hiatt's "Have a Little Faith in Me"), a distorted electric guitar slams into the mix, and in the final seconds Andrew W.K. shouts, in a drunken garble, "CADILAAAAOOOAGGGH!" 55 Cadillac may not be much of a party, but its conclusion reminds us that with W.K. if the party isn't happening, it's always just about to happen.

The sounds that shape You're Not Alone are the same that make I Get Wet, Andrew W.K.'s 2001 debut and breakthrough, the minor classic that it is: heavily distorted chords on the guitar, faux-operatic electric organs, and vocal parts that tread the line between singing and screaming. The emphasis on partying continues unabated as well: in the first ten of You're Not Alone's 16 tracks, 30 percent of the song titles mention partying in some way ("The Power of Partying", "Party Mindset", "The Party Never Dies"). In this way, given the time lapse between You're Not Alone and 2006's Close Calls with Brick Walls, the last proper studio record of W.K.'s, some might be tempted to call his latest record a "return to form". (The gap between Close Calls and You're Not Alone is particularly magnified for listeners in America and Europe, since the 2006 release of Close Calls only took place in South Korea and Japan, with the western world getting its copies in 2010.) But even as 55 Cadillac proves fleetingly interesting, it was never going to pave new pathways for the exuberant W.K., whose musical ethos will forever be defined by bloody noses and white t-shirts, rather than the manicured environs of the concert hall.

In the years between 55 Cadillac and You're Not Alone, W.K cultivated his party-starting image even further, taking the lyric sheet of I Get Wet and establishing a whole philosophy based upon it. He frequented talk radio and TV shows, clad in his signature white shirts, to promote partying. The Oxford Debate Union invited him to speak about "The Philosophy of Partying". Were W.K. less diligent or less savvy at branding himself, I Get Wet would have gone down as one of the ultimate one-offs of the '00s. Like or dislike W.K.'s attempt to turn partying into a credo, you can't deny his work ethic. And You're Not Alone, even more than I Get Wet, testifies to the tremendous amount of energy he's put into his brand. Across 16 tracks, which include a smattering of short spoken word interludes and interstitial pieces, You're Not Alone attempts to embody the "philosophy of partying" musically while also explicating its tenets directly to the listener.

The result? W.K. certainly meets his goals with You're Not Alone. Anyone who has seen his media appearances since 55 Cadillac will find these tunes an accurate representation of what W.K. does. The choruses throw out lofty proclamations designed to remind us all that life, no matter how tumultuous it may seem in this late capitalist era, should be embraced wholeheartedly, and we should never run away from love. "Music is worth living for!" "Just keep on going!" "We have total freedom!" On the mid-album cut "Give Up on You", W.K. invokes the hymnal aesthetic, with organs backing the chant, "We won't give up on you / Won't let you down / If you need a friend!" On sheer positivity grounds, You're Not Alone is hard to resist. Experiencing it feels like hearing a motivational TED Talk delivered by someone who shotgunned two Natty Ices prior to taking the stage.

But over the course of 16 songs (which run nearly an hour), W.K.'s well-meaning jubilance wears out its welcome. Much of the album's diminishing returns have to do with its unblinking enthusiasm. I Get Wet has its fair share of all-caps optimism – "She Is Beautiful" may be the most childlike and direct love song ever written – but what makes its take on the partying philosophy successful is the element of danger laced throughout, represented in the bloodied nose on its sleeve art. Not long after the opening one-two of "It's Time to Party" and "Party Hard", W.K. tells his listeners that they "better get ready to die".

The majority of I Get Wet indulges in cheeriness with a metal aesthetic, but there are enough instances of that cheer being broken up to keep the elation from feeling forced. On You're Not Alone, W.K. presents a monochromatic emotional world, which isn't helped by his reliance on many of the sonic tricks that fuel I Get Wet and 2003's The Wolf. Whatever compositional experimentation W.K. wanted to work out on 55 Cadillac he clearly got out of his system back in 2009.

"They say that nobody changes / But I'm living proof that they do," W.K. sings on the chorus of "Ever Again". These lines feel odd coming just after the opening chant of "The Power of Partying", which presents W.K. up to his characteristic party-starting antics. Yet over the long course of You're Not Alone, the truth of W.K.'s proclamation on "Ever Again" starts to become clear. This album was obviously written by the same guy who wrote I Get Wet, but the guy who wrote that album still had rough edges. You're Not Alone takes the gruff, untamed I Get Wet and smoothes those edges out, and not even an ultra-high energy level and walls of guitar distortion can mask the fact that this party is loud, but not that fun.

It feels cheap or even cynical to criticize W.K., who may just be the most sincere human being on the planet, but at his best he balances an all-out affirmation of life with the knowledge that if you live life as hard as he does, you're going to bloody your nose and, just maybe, you're going to have to get ready to die. But if you believe the songs of You're Not Alone, you could trick yourself into thinking you can live forever.

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