It was Sum 41’s juvenile takes on brash, snotty pop-punk LPs All Killer, No Filler and Does This Look Infected? that made them one of the most visible punters in the movement. And surely the most recognizable ever to come out of Canada, 2004’s Chuck, did as much towards proving they weren’t going to be stuck with the same immature Blink 182 jokes and beginner’s chord progressions for the rest of their faux-rebellious spiked-hair career. Chuck was dark, vaguely metallic, and atmospheric, named after an African peacekeeper who apparently saved the band’s life while they were in the Congo, and boasted sharp songwriting legions ahead of anything the group had previously penned. It was just the step forward Sum 41 needed to step away from pop-punk’s basic, corny conventions, but just as it hit shelves, the band’s members found themselves ready to split.
“I didn’t think there was purpose at that time,” frontman Deryck Whibley states in retrospect. “I thought that maybe that chapter of my life was over.” Yet the group pulled through it, and in addition to Whibley’s marriage to Avril Lavigne and losing shredder Dave Baksh, the inner turmoil had the most significant hand in shaping their new disc. Down to a power trio, what they’ve come up with is Underclass Hero, an album Whibley considers “the most meaningful and important record we ever did”. As if Green Day covering John Lennon wasn’t enough, the title’s close resemblance to the latter’s “Working Class Hero” is intentional; the fact that ‘working class’ has been moved down a notch to ‘underclass’, and that Whibley is on the front cover, contradicting himself by looking punky and mopey at the same time, speaks volumes about what he feels he’s been through these last two years of his life.
It’s no coincidence either that Underclass Hero lies spread-eagled somewhere between Green Day’s rock opera and My Chemical Romance’s giant-sized concept album — it makes stabs at both across its rather daunting fifteen track total. By playing up to the genre’s leaders, though, they only spotlight their inconsistencies; Chuck be damned, Sum 41 are playing safe, harmless three-chord pop-punk again like they never left it. Most of this mediocre slush sounds like an attempt to cash in by imitation rather than any true artistic expression.
Concept or no, all the things you grew to identify pop-punk by are here (the Sum 41 camp being one of only a few that have not switched sides to emo) — gruff, pissed-off chants that incite a rebellion but never put it into practise; walls of guitars redeemed by ever-so-melodic, scruffy-collar riffs; and textbook, two-note choruses that whirl around your head for hours, and for all the wrong reasons. It could just as easily have been recorded and released in 1999 if it wasn’t so self-serious; the band’s definition of operatizing their music is to insert a somber extended intro in front of each of their songs before they get fast and familiar. “I’m just another reject!” Whibley shouts on the title track.
Between the dual grand aspirations, Underclass Hero is a faceless rip-off of a dozen other bands. Every number bears the clear imprint of another outfit that’s been there and done that, even on those rare occasions when the trio do shut up and honestly play with as much zest as they can muster, which can thus be spoken about with half-hearted approval: the title track, for example.
“Walking Disaster” runs four minutes and 46 seconds. It starts and finishes as a Simple Plan broken-home whine — I’m talking about the ninth-grade denouncing of Mommy and Daddy — but in the middle the volume is amped out, the timeless three-chord chug is dug up, and Whibley spits in his bratty Blink 182 American schoolkid accent to dish out some of the most cliché hooks in pop-punk: “It’s too late / To save me / To save me / To save me / To save me”. They follow up that smooth social angle by increasing the size of their scope. A voiceover intones the death of the President in “March of the Dogs”, but that’s only the set-up to the real bullet in the head of the US government; Whibley sneers, “I don’t believe in the politics”. That’s the kind of political savvy that contributing to Rock Against Bush has given him.
If their inability to do anything but wallow in “society sucks” statements on their harder numbers is frustrating, the album’s assorted love songs and ballads are even more awkward. When Sum 41 came out with “Pieces” on Chuck, it was emotional and appropriate, and offered a temporary breather in the face of some all-out rocking. Its success prompted a whole lot more of its kind (and more over-the-top), which threaten to overbear us as the record winds down to a conclusion.
They ape Simple Plan again on “With Me”, and combine it with the heart-on-sleeve anthem learnt from tourmates Yellowcard, the soft ‘ching’ of keyboards replacing the latter’s violinist, the harmonies doubled up to wash it over with emotion. These actually blur Whibley’s clarity: he mumbles his way through the song’s uplifting chorus so that you can’t even get the sap out of it like you could Yellowcard’s “Only One”. Then, after “King of Contradiction”, a short blast, they get back to wailing on “Best of Me”. It’s not too hard to guess who these are written about. He even references the music video to “Pieces” on “With Me”; “All the streets / Where I walked alone / With nowhere to go / Have come to an end”.
“Dear Father” should be a heartfelt letter from Whibley to the father he never knew. Yet it’s so trite and childishly naïve, containing lines like “You’re out there somewhere / I don’t know if you care”, that it’s hard to take seriously. The fact it sounds exactly like Blink 182’s “Adam’s Song” doesn’t help matters either.
Then there’s “Ma Poubelle”, the requisite piano interlude, which lacks the dark humor of My Chemical Romance’s “Mama” (and Liza Minnelli, for that matter), and is just in your face and stupid. Note to the band: It is generally not a good idea, when you want anyone to think you’re serious about society-bashing, to include a gimmick, least of all one that isn’t funny or interesting.
There is one gem tucked away where you’re most likely to skim over — a hidden track that surprisingly isn’t a duet with Avril Lavigne, trailing the maudlin acoustic finale “So Long Goodbye”. It’s also an acoustic ditty, but much more real, possessing a lo-fi quality that’s both appealing and fresh, and Whibley steps away from his bombastic Freddie Mercury/Billie Joe Armstrong approach in favor of a sensitive falsetto that suits him better. It’s without a doubt the best on Underclass Hero, but after enduring an album worth of Sum 41’s clichés, I’m ready with one of my own: too little, too late.
“Confusion and Frustration in Modern Times” sums up Sum 41’s whole repetitive lyrical message, or should I say bludgeoning, on Underclass Hero. The band simply have no idea how to write what they want. After Chuck asserted that they were ready to embrace their own image and come of age, they disappeared, and are now back with a spin that makes them seem more like a chewed-up product of the times, a cheap alternative to the real deal. Even if Underclass Hero had the most innovative and meaningful lyrics around, it would still be boring pop-punk. My Chemical Romance may have overstepped themselves with The Black Parade, but at least in the end they had something to show for it.