It seems that until Hoobastank finally give in to their hidden adult-contemporary desires, they will be destined to languish in a morass of unoriginality.
Sure, you come to a Hoobastank record with certain expectations -- when you've got a band that's a mockup of another band that itself dove straight into the valleys of serious suck in the later, commercially viable portion of its career (that latter band being Incubus), it's easy to expect just about anything from such an imitation to sink to depths nigh-unimaginable. And you know, for a while there, I thought Hoobastank was going to prove my cynical expectations completely right.
I mean, the album starts with a track called "The Rules", which consists mostly of a drill sergeant barking orders at the unsuspecting listener. Oh, good, the drill sergeant thing hasn't been done to death. If that weren't painful enough, Mr. Drill Sergeant actually continues his free will-flogging rants into the second track, "Born to Lead", which is one of those authority-challenging anthems that modern rock radio just loves. "Challenge authority, kids! Challenge authority, and leave your twelve bucks in the basket out front! Be yourself, just like everyone else who buys our album!" It's unfortunate that such heavy-handed pseudo-self-help tripe has to weigh down what's actually a musically decent song, complete with those dance-beat drums that the Franz made fashionable again and lots of half-stepping in the guitar parts, adding a vaguely unsettling Middle Eastern subtext to the obvious militarism. Unfortunately, such subtleties are lost in the heavy-handedness of Douglas Robb's lyrics, and we are left with a basic approximation of generic aggression.
This type of misplaced aggression shows up intermittently throughout the rest of the album as well -- Robb's lyrical work hits a new all-time low on the cringeworthy sex jam "Inside of You" ("It seems so obvious, / There's somethin' up with us, / I swear I feel it from across the room"). Again, there's a dance beat, and horns, to emphasize the fact that Hoobastank are trying their best at conveying aural porn, which is both funny and sad. "Without a Fight" is more "RISE UP AND FIGHT AGAINST . . . UH, SOMETHING" music, and "Look Where We Are" tries to add a country stomp to little effect.
The aggression is tempered, however, by a lighter touch that most bands of this ilk find awkward, but which Hoobastank finds incredibly comfortable. Robb himself has a sublimely beautiful falsetto tone, and he can croon with the best rock vocalists of this decade. Seriously, this guy's got a Disney movie theme song in him before his career is over. Until then, we get things like "Moving Forward", which starts off with a Queen-inspired stab at self-harmonization and finishes like a Diorama-era Silverchair tune, complete with big gratuitous "Na na na" vocals. Mind you, this is not a bad thing. "Moving Forward" is perhaps the most mature song Hoobastank has written to date, both musically and lyrically, as it's another self-help jam, but it's uplifting and enriching rather than overtly confrontational and aggressive. In fact, much of the album is like this, as songs like "The First of Me" and synth-laden Lennon-aping first single "If I Were You" preach the virtues of individuality and appreciation for the good in your life, respectively. The testosterone is toned down, and as a result, the message actually becomes believable.
It is in this spirit that the title of the album shows itself to be perfectly, yet tragically appropriate. Every Man for Himself is a statement of belief in oneself, rather than a simple "cool-sounding" title, though its use of the word "Man" does betray the fact that Hoobastank are, quite obviously, not making this album for the girls. These may be sensitive guys, but modern radio rock 'n' roll remains, largely, a boys' club.
So sure, Every Man for Himself managed to surprise me a bit, and break out of some of the traps of its genre. Unfortunately, it still falls into too many of those traps to be acknowledged as a truly wonderful album. It'll work pretty damn well in the car at 60mph, but that's about it. Even so, I do like the direction in which Hoobastank seems to be headed, as their more mature songwriting approach is quite obviously battling their long-standing tendency toward stupid rock songs. What I hope is that one day, Every Man for Himself will be seen as the transitional album, the one that marked the band's transition from poor imitation to solid artists. If only I were more optimistic that such a transformation could actually happen.