Somewhere within the two discs of In Defense of the Genre, a really good album is lurking.
Say Anything has made one helluva rap album. It's an odd thing, especially considering that Say Anything is best known as an emo-rock group. But In Defense of the Genre is the next logical step for a band that takes great pleasure in poking fun at hip-hop culture (all while reveling in the total excess of it as well). After all, Say Anything has already written a song that hits back at all the "haters" ("Admit It!!!" from the 2004 effort … Is a Real Boy), are still best known for their witty, biting and funny lyrics, and now they have an epic double album littered with more cameos than a Ja Rule album.
In Defense of the Genre's galaxy of guests include Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance), Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional), Adam Lazarra (Taking Back Sunday), Pete Yorn, DJ Swamp, Anthony Raneri (Bayside), Caithlin De Marrais (Rainer Maria), Hayley Williams (Paramore), Matt Skiba (Alklaine Trio), Chris Conley (Saves the Day), and Kenny Vassoli (the Starting Line). Yet even with this jaw-dropping alt-rock guest list, you never once forget that the party's host is also its star, Max Bemis. The Say Anything front man/lyricist indulges his every melodic whim here, but while … Is a Real Boy remains a stunning triumph of emo-rock at it's best, In Defense of the Genre collapses under the weight of it's own ambitions. If we were to continue the rap analogy, then In Defense of the Genre is to …Is a Real Boy as Jay-Z's The Blueprint 2 is to Jay-Z's The Blueprint.
Say Anything never had huge chart-topping hits or even the kind of commercial notoriety that My Chemical Romance and Thursday have scored in recent years. What they did have, however, was the respect of their peers. … Is a Real Boy was an abandoned concept album that still carried plenty of sting, bite, bile, and originality, something that's growing ever-so-rare in the days where a new emo band is popping up every five seconds or so. Later picked up by J Records, the album got re-released with a stellar EP (titled, appropriately enough, …Was a Real Boy), and publications ranging from Alternative Press to Rolling Stone were only too eager to hop aboard the Bemis Bandwagon. No wonder Bemis has so many famous friends on this album. No wonder he expands his ambitions by trying to blend traditional emo-rock with about a dozen other genres. No wonder the result is a mixed bag.
From the opening caterwaul of "Skinny, Mean Man", it's obvious that Bemis is attempting to make a great statement. Of course, any pre-release hubbub about this being a concept album needs to immediately be put to rest, as this is far from being the emo doppelganger of The Wall or even Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. He doesn't want to be pigeonholed merely as an "emo band", and for that he does deserve much kudos. Though the Postal Service-styled electronics of "No Soul" may not leave much of a mark in the grand scale of things, it does make for a unique musical detour of which there are many on this album. "That Is Why", for example, is a full-blown show tune. "The Word You Wield" sounds like a B-side from Weezer's debut album or, at the very least, a decent re-write of "Say It Ain't So".
Best of all, however, is "Baby Girl, I'm a Blur", a brilliant piece of techno-rock that doubles over as the album's lead single. It's propulsive, energetic, and deliciously straightforward. Much credit for these successes needs to be handed over to Brad Wood, who serves as the album's producer, engineer and mixer. The fact that he's able to make string-filled Broadway ballads, techno rockers and acoustic laments all sound totally in sync with each other is nothing short of a knob-twiddling miracle. Still, at two discs and 27 songs, there's only so much of a band that you can take at one time.
One of the largest downfalls of In Defense of the Genre is simply watching the decline of Bemis' gift of lyricism. On … Is a Real Boy, his words told stories as extravagant as discovering a girl's still-beautiful corpse in the aftermath of the Apocalypse and as simple as fearing to put one's bare foot between two fighting cats, worried more about getting a scratch than ending the feline battle. On In Defense of the Genre , Bemis leans more towards the kind of sentiments that other, inferior emo bands tend to resort to. The chorus to "Vexed" goes "Everybody knows beneath your clothes / Starin' at your toes is just a pose / Everybody good knows how hard you blow / Everybody knows" soon followed by the line "does this confession turn you on?" And, later, "You think you're Jesus Christ / You're not my Jesus Christ".
Bemis never seemed like the kind of lyricist that would have to resort to such blatant analogy, but this isn't the first time he pulls that trick. "The hater's know it's true / Jesus died a Jew" he sings during the chorus of (appropriately enough) "Died a Jew", and though his attempt to use Jesus' tale as analogy should still be commended for its sheer risk factor, the whole thing ultimately doesn't translate well in its finished form. For every good line we get ("Fixin' up the drugs with a tiny flame / Put 'em in my lungs and forget my name / I blame my parents for molesting me / With self-fulfilling prophecy"), we get another that's so bad it'll make you cringe (let's pray we never hear the phrase "toss my caustic salad" again). Just when we think we're building to a fascinating character portrait on "The Church Channel", we suddenly get the inexplicable appearance of a horn-rimmed glasses-wearing ghost (voiced by Paramore's Hayley Williams), and instead a proper story arc or profound character insight, we're attacked by wedding bells and lyrical streams that don't hold up well under close scrutiny. Ultimately, we're left more confused than anything else.
Even with these flaws, however, In Defense of the Genre still contains moments that are just as visceral and thrilling as anything on … Is a Real Boy. "Shiksa (Girlfriend)" is the most deceptively lightweight yet thrilling track here, "Spores" doesn't even need a drum kit to rock out, and the acoustic "An Insult to the Dead" shows Bemis at his most vulnerable and open (and even then, he's still able to spew a little bit of venom). Needless to say, somewhere within the two discs of In Defense of the Genre, a really good album is lurking.
In Defense of the Genre doesn't really defend anything, nor does it answer any lingering life questions that you may have. It's the same Say Anything that we've heard before, only this time around, they've switched out their melodic focus for an expanded musical palette, which is ultimately a gift and a curse at the same time. For fans of the genre, it's certainly worth investigating, but for casual by passers, it's just not the right cathartic meal ticket. Yet for those hardcore fans who need solace, no need to worry. Now that Bemis has Said Everything, his roots are all he has to go back to. After all, if Jay-Z can stage a late-career comeback, then why can't Max Bemis?