Imperial Teen have been around since the mid-1990s, always playing an impeccable version of pop-rock with very few frills. That’s led to the band getting all sorts of sub-labels, often based on the terminology of the day. In the 1990s they were alternative rock, in the 2000s after their five-year hiatus they were indie pop veterans, and there was usually room to mention that co-frontman Roddy Bottum was gay, particularly back in the band’s early days when it was actually something people cared about.
That five-year hiatus was addressed directly by the title of 2007’s The Hair the TV the Baby and the Band, which was a list of things the members of the quartet were doing while not playing in Imperial Teen. A five-year gap seemed like a big deal to fans at the time, but since then the band have become a decidedly part-time project, with another five years passing before Feel the Sound appeared in 2012. And for those counting at home, it’s taken more than seven years for the new Now We Are Timeless to arrive. Imperial Teen now get together when they feel like it, with day jobs and other gigs (Bottum took a couple of those intervening years to get his other band, Faith No More, back together for a new album and a world tour) taking up the bulk of their time.
Musically, Now We Are Timeless continues in the same pop-rock vein the band is known for, but what struck me this time out was the diversity of the songs. There are ten songs on this album, and each one is its own thing, and each one is good to great. The de facto title track, “Timeless”, comes last, and it’s an ambling, synth-soaked ballad that’s defined by its constant, gentle ride cymbal and falsetto lead vocals. Those elements give it a resemblance to the 1950s hit “Earth Angel”, but the downbeat bridge echoes gentler 1990s alt-rock and the hollow body guitar solo puts it right back into the 1950s, or in a Badly Drawn Boy song from 2000. That shifting sensibility is pretty appropriate for a song with the refrain, “Now we are timeless.”
The album’s second song, “We Do What We Do Best”, is particularly interesting. With its loping, stadium-ready beat and repeatedly chanted title, it sounds like someone from the band said, “Hey, guys, I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody, and I was thinking about ‘We Will Rock You’ and then, Roddy, I was remembering how Faith No More had ‘We Care a Lot’, and I think we should do our own take on that kind of song.” But Imperial Teen are too experienced to just rip those songs off, so it’s three minutes of rhyming non-sequiturs plus a big chorus where everybody gets to sing “It’s only natural / It’s only natural / Good times!”
Every song on the album has catchy bits, but the biggest hook might come on “Parade”. It’s essentially a march, with the band almost all playing in unison on the downbeats. Bottum’s vocals are striking here because he stays in a low register for the entire song. That allows him build nicely to the upbeat musically but downbeat lyrical refrain “I miss the way you rain on my parade!” The march and refrain are two sides of the same big hook that goes throughout the song. In contrast, the Postal Service-like opener “I Think That’s Everything” piles on the different hooks. The tinny synth drums start it off, and a quiet bloopy synth riff shows up every time the singing is absent. Bottum sings solo for the opening verse but for nearly everything else the vocals feature tight, warm harmonies. There’s a bit of strummy acoustic guitar adding color here and there. Most unexpectedly, a huge analog synth pops in a couple of times to add yet another simple but catchy melody as a solo.
In other places, the band lean on the rock side of their pop-rock equation. “Walkaway” uses a simple driving guitar and bass riff and then layers with harmonized refrains of “Ahh ahh ahh ahh” and “Watching them walk away” as well as prominent electric piano chords. “Ha” features noisy, distorted guitar all over the place, but it’s once again a harmonized refrain, this time “Hello / Hello / Hello / Hello” that drives the song. “The Girl” is also guitar-driven track, with a simple riff in the verses and then a traditional big rock chorus. But those last two examples are also two of the solid but not quite great songs on the album. It seems like Imperial Teen is better these days when stretching themselves stylistically.
The slinky “Don’t Wanna Let You Go” uses big guitars and beats, but does it sparingly. The verses are quiet but insistent, with come-hither vocals and an urgent background guitar. The chorus of “Don’t wanna let you go” is more of a release, and the bridge makes the song’s lustiness more explicit. It’s a sexy song and a whole lot of fun. The poppier “How We Say Goodbye” gets a lot of mileage from piano chords and drum rimshots. There are a lot of little breaks in between the beats here where the band lets there be just a bit of silence. Will Schwartz’s high-pitched, nasally vocals fit this song well, and the journey to the big chorus is a good one.
Now We Are Timeless shows what a veteran band can do when they are locked in together. Even though Imperial Teen don’t tour much and don’t often record anymore, the songwriting and performances here are so good. They aren’t doing anything groundbreaking, but this is a well-crafted record that’s a pleasure to listen to, and it gets better the more you listen to it. Highly recommended for fans of the kind of pop-rock that doesn’t make the mainstream charts anymore.