Piano-pop trio Jukebox the Ghost are back with their first album since 2018’s Off to the Races. That record found the band finally breaking through with the single, “Everybody’s Lonely”, after a decade of making radio-friendly piano-pop music. “Everybody’s Lonely” only reached the mid-20s on the US Alternative and Rock Airplay Charts. It made enough of an impact, though, to end up on playlists in Target and Kroger stores around the nation. “I heard our song in the grocery store!” isn’t necessarily as great as “They’re playing us on the radio every hour.” Still, in the 2020s, there may be more people listening in the grocery stores than to terrestrial radio.
As for Cheers, the trio’s knack for big hooks is as strong as ever. Plus, putting out a record in the wake of a pandemic seems oddly suited to the strengths of the band’s two songwriters. While Jukebox the Ghost’s bread and butter has been more typical relationship songs, pianist Ben Thornewill has always been prone to bouts of introspection while guitarist Tommy Siegel has historically had a penchant for imagining apocalyptic scenarios. They put those strengths to good use here.
The record begins with “Century In the Making (Intro)”, a vocally-focused, thickly harmonized piece that leads right into “Hey Maude”. “Maude” opens with Thornewill singing among flute and harp flourishes and then pounding piano and drums. Siegel comes in with chunky descending guitar chords while drummer Jesse Kristin switches to a more standard rock beat. This all happens in the song’s first 40 seconds, and with the “Intro” before it, the song has already gone through a large array of styles in under 90 seconds.
“Hey Maude” pushes through a couple more sections but returns twice more to a hard rock chorus. It’s a wild song that brings to mind Off to the Races’ ridiculously layered opening track “Jumpstarted”. Once again, Jukebox the Ghost have put most of their more prog-rock tendencies into one overstuffed song at the beginning of an album. While the lack of transition to the chorus always comes off as jarring, “Hey Maude” works as a piece because there is always something catchy and exciting happening, even as the musical style shifts dramatically.
Next up, Jukebox the Ghost has a pair of much more traditional pop tracks. “Wasted” has Thornewill nostalgically reflecting on his younger days through what seems to be his experiences during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. Loping beats and simple piano chords buttress Thornewill’s wistful singing and the thick backing vocals, and a guest verse from Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness brings a slightly different color to the song. Meanwhile, Siegel’s bouncy “Ramona” goes on quite a lyrical journey, blending the personal with the global. The first verse finds Siegel singing to the titular character, offering to help her take a break and relax from whatever’s bothering her.
“Million Dollar Bills” is a new sound for Thornewill. It has typically dense backing vocals and a cheeky sense of humor. “I made my money selling million dollar bills / Half off, half off / Get it while it’s hot!” The beat, however, is slower and groovier than what Jukebox the Ghost has typically done. Siegel has put away the guitar and is playing bass on the song, a real rarity for the trio. That happens again on “Move Along”, which has hip-hop-style beats, Siegel again on bass, and Thornewill using a tinny piano tone. It seems like Thornewill has spent some time over the past few years listening to the hip-hop-influenced sounds of some of his piano-pop contemporaries, like Twenty-One Pilots. “Move Along”, in particular, sounds like Jukebox the Ghost trying out a Matt & Kim song.
“Brass Band” also has some of this feel. It begins with a melodic but repetitive piano motif that builds to the line, “I want the rarest thrills / To hit my soul like a ten-piece brass band.” At this point, the music stops for a second before jumping back in with an echoing “Brass band!”, followed by a funky beat and a huge-sounding low brass accompaniment. The song’s bridge goes full-on orchestral accompaniment before returning to the refrain, finally adding some trumpets to the low brass on the last go-round.
While Thornewill is working in that milieu, Siegel is continuing with his apocalyptic pop songs. “Us Against the World” is a loping, gentle 6/8 track that uses a lot of synth and vibraphone in the first half (piano doesn’t show up until later on), and with Siegel returning to the bass guitar. The refrain goes, “Us against the world / We could run we could run”, but during the verses Siegel admonishes, “So don’t look back / At the cities that are burning / That’s the past.”
Siegel also contributes “Everybody Panic”, which feels like an exaggerated, sardonic take on COVID-19 lockdowns. The verses are dark and smoky but give way to a bright, acoustic guitar-driven chorus. Siegel sweetly sings, “Everybody panic / But one at a time / People have jobs to get to”, and later follows it up with “Maintain a single-file line / So that everyone can panic, but one at a time.” The chorus gets busier and darker as the song goes on, eventually leading into a bridge of several different parts that takes the track in interesting, unexpected directions.
The band’s thick vocal arrangements return near the end of the album with “Raise a Glass (Interlude)”, which begins with cartoonish singing, goes through a middle section bursting with tight harmonies, and ends with joyous electric guitars that lead into Siegel’s “How the World Began”. This song is about as positive a description of destructive scenarios as possible, opening with wildfires and flooding in Los Angeles. As it continues, though, Siegel describes people coming together afterward and successfully ensuring against future disasters.
Thornewill closes the record with the title track, which goes between thumping verses and a Queen-inspired epic chorus. Even as it gets huge, the song very specifically celebrates the ordinary over the exceptional. “Cheers to more of the everyday / Raise a glass and sing along / The outcasts and the underdogs.” It’s a fun, inspiring way to end the album, and with the band’s big hooks, it’s easy to buy into their positivity at face value.
Cheers nicely balances new sonic wrinkles with Jukebox the Ghost’s established strengths. It’s smartly constructed with a couple of tracks that feel like natural follow-ups to “Everybody’s Lonely”, but it doesn’t go overboard on the simple pop songs. Thornewill and Siegel’s songwriting is excellent across the board this time out, making Cheers one of the best albums of the band’s career.