I had Australia for weeks -- months maybe -- before it struck me. The first few listens, I just wasn't impressed; but when that one listen happened, it happened, and I was horribly, blissfully enamored. It was like falling for the understated, reserved misfit over the out-and-out heartthrob: the passion might take longer to erupt, but when it does it's all the more intense, for you feel like you've discovered something that others simply don't see.
On Stop All the World Now, Howie Day has grown from the metaphoric overlooked-yet-overwhelming underdog into something a little closer to the flashy hunk. Gone and the low-budget looping which backgrounded his guitarwork and plaintive singing; in are much more polished production, more put-together songwriting, much cleaner vocals. It's a graduation certainly, but it's also the loss of that raw power that Howie Day is notorious for, which makes his live performance emotionally exhausting, which made Australia a dazzling gem. Australia was Howie Day exposed and beautifully alive; Stop All the World Now is him dressed up, prettified, and further away. Newcomers might not notice or care, but for older fans, Stop All the World Now will take some getting used to. Or rather, it seems far too easy to know.
What's strangest about the album is the appearance of a song from Australia -- a new (and improved?) version of "She Says". A quick comparison is in order. "She Says" 2000: his voice breaks. You can hear him breath and push his body through the notes. It's just him and a guitar (check), the sound quivers, the effect is slow, painful, deep. "She Says" 2003: the instrumentation has been padded. The pace has been sped up. The force of his singing has been drenched in production, its brutal force scaled back. It's poppy. To put it bluntly, it's been John Mayer-ized.
The new "She Says" is a crime against the former version, but that's mostly due to the shock of having the materiality stripped from it. On other songs, without previous specters, the effect is not nearly so scandalous. They're pretty -- sometimes very pretty. They're listenable - often, highly listenable. And they're... clean. Sometimes way too clean.
"Brace Yourself", the opener, hangs over the album's beginning like a cloud full of warm rain, the sound soaking and full. The harmonies, performed by Jay Clifford (Jump, Little Children, Rosebud), stretch mightily across the song's terrain, and along with drums, bass, and muted piano, give the altitude at the most precious and proper of moments. "Numbness For Sound" is simple and simply radiant, riddled with poignant lines. And you can't not be moved by the frank sadness of "Trouble in Here", a song that rings in your ears long after it's ended. But peppered amongst these joys are songs so radio-friendly that they're nearly enemies. There's just too much going on in "Perfect Time of Day" -- too many timed harmonies, too many layers, too much cover -- it's a song that sounds as if it should come tied with a big red bow. "Collide", as pretty as it is, irons Day's trembling tenor out flat, adds cheesy strings, and uses instrumentation which makes observant gleam with a pop sheen that sometimes just sounds... well... lame. And all of this packed together, so glossy and packaged, leaves a plasticky aftertaste.
The appearance of Jay Clifford is a welcome addition, and this album is still a testament to Day's sincere, youthfully romantic lyrics, catchy melodies and touching, go-for-broke singing style. But Stop All the World Now is an album you have a crush on, not one you fall deeply, complexly, and foolishly in love with. And crushes have a way of disappearing suddenly, without a trace.