It seems redundant, if not painfully obvious, to label any Motion City Soundtrack record a breakup record. These were the guys, remember, who essentially introduced themselves to the world by singing, “I got the message long before you said you knew / There was no chance of us at all.” It’s like calling Brand New records hopeless. Or John Mayer records romantic. Or Rage Against the Machine records angry. Such are the reasons why we go to these people in the first place. We get it. They get it. It’s an unspoken agreement between artist and consumer.
Yet even with as much established, Panic Stations is a different kind of lonely album, even by Motion City Soundtrack standards. It’s a matured darkness, a type of acceptance that comes after having to get up off the floor one too many times. The story goes that it only took these guys a couple weeks to get everything on tape, and the recording process came between what feels like a perpetual touring cycle on which the band embarks as hard as any other emotionally charged punk-pop band in recent memory. Suffice to say, that rawness serves them well here.
A song like “TKO” feels subversively loose, proving to be the antithesis for something as polished as 2007’s Even If It Kills Me. The spaced-out keyboards are still there, and of course singer Justin Pierre’s underrated ability to craft an infectious hook sits front and center as he insists over and over again, “You keep knocking me out.” But this time around, the group appears much more cocksure than they have before, apologizing for nothing about how they got to this burst of artistic output in the first place.
And at just under 40 minutes, that’s precisely what this is: a burst of energy spread out over 11 songs. Opener “Anything at All” holds steady a long line of tradition that hears the band begin its records with an acute version of inspiring aggression. Pierre isn’t even two lines into the first verse before you know this is a Motion City Soundtrack record. By the time new drummer Claudio Rivera (coming over from Saves the Day) begins riding on that cymbal’s bell during the chorus, you’ve already made up your mind on if you’re going to stick around.
And you should, because what lies ahead ahead is worth it. “Over It Now” is one of the more biting songs the band has produced. Pushing forward by way of a welcome and fun punk-rock groove, Pierre wickedly plays with the space between candid speak and emotional kiss-off when he offers up this in verse two: “I kicked around in the big, bad world / After you sold all my action figures / I never got in that one last word / So, here’s a fuck you.” It wouldn’t be nearly as affecting if he didn’t fully utilize the depths of his monotone demeanor the way he does here. He’s not so much pissed as he is done. The same idea is never more clear than it is later in the set, on “Gravity”.
But being done with the past has its perks, too, and the handful of moments that optimism rears its ugly head provides levity and balance to the equation. “It’s a Pleasure to Meet You” is a call to arms with its vague Dropkick Muphys influence (by way of keyboards) and refreshingly hopeful sentiment. Things might be bad, but they can be better as long as you know you aren’t alone (or at least so says Justin Pierre) and the singer proves that point by way of experience. You trust him because you know he’s felt it. And you know he’s felt it because of phrases like the one referenced in the last paragraph.
It doesn’t get much better than “I Can Feel You”, though. Bopping along with a dance-ska backbone, the track illuminates hope from a writer who’s earned success by tapping into the hopeless. “I can’t wait to meet you / I really hate that I’m alone,” he proclaims on top of a stutter, off-beat hook and it’s both endearing and promising. The ship truly blasts off into outer space, however, when he repeats the song’s namesake over a sprawling, made-for-movies bridge that is as inspiring as the Minneapolis quintet has ever been. For once, loneliness isn’t overshadowed by merely being alone, and instead it marks the beginning of endless beginnings. Pierre might be down, but he’s finally comfortable accepting that he’ll never be out.
And neither will Motion City Soundtrack. Panic Stations being album number six, it represents a certain level of longevity that one would assume is a relief to encounter. In fact, that durability helps make this such a fun listen. Gone are the days of over-thinking the things that make an album what it is; in are the decisions to head to the storied Pachyderm Studio to cut 11 songs in two weeks. There’s an assurance here that hasn’t been present on the band’s previous sets, and at the end of the day, it has provided an essential layer to a rock formula that needed forward movement in order to survive in the first place.
It’s learning how to lose love, but not yourself. It’s a breakup record from a band finally ready to fully explore the break.