Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"This is it, boys, this is war - what are we waiting for?"

fun. - Some Nights
Fueled by Ramen/Nettwerk, 2012
4.5 stars

Over the past few months, fun.'s "We Are Young," the first single off of their fantastic sophomore album, has been infecting mainstream music in ways that music by bands I love very rarely does: a prominent feature spot as the coda song of a Glee episode, a fantastically well positioned Super Bowl ad, and plenty of facebook statuses quoting the lyrics. A few years back, after my first listens to the gloriously strange pop record that was Aim & Ignite, I can't say I would have envisioned fun. as a mainstream pop act. No doubt, the songs were terrific, from the explosively catchy "Be Calm," to the gospel-infused "Benson Hedges," to the "Boys of Summer" reference at the end of "Walking the Dog," all the way to the Lion King-esque chants at the start of the epic closer, "Take Your Time (Coming Home)." To this day, I don't quite know how to describe the overall sound of Aim & Ignite: Glammy rock? A rave-up block party of musical influences? Some bizarre combination of circus music and alternative rock? The most straightforward song on the record, the lyrically driven love ballad "The Gambler," probably provided soundtrack for a lot of blooming relationships (including my own), but I could never have imagined hearing even that on mainstream pop radio.

Despite all this, when fun. started blowing up with "We Are Young," it really did make sense, because the song, regardless of the band's debut record, is a bonafide anthem in a time of far too few: it's a chorus just begging to be shouted by a crowd in any environment, from a college party to a huge music venue, and it is a song that a lot of people are going to identify with. Frontman Nate Reuss is no stranger to big choruses: he wrote one of the most infectious of the past decade on  "The First Single (You Know Me)" with his previous band, The Format, and he loads this album with so many of them that "We Are Young," while a terrific song, is hardly even a standout. 

The opener, the "Some Nights Intro" (strangely titled, since it's almost two and a half minutes and could easily have been a standalone song), builds from the sound of a broken down piano into a Queen-aping power ballad. Reuss sounds so much like Freddie Mercury here that for a moment, I almost expected a classic-rock record, but the band has other things in mind. The title track, with another killer chorus and a terrific delivery from Reuss, is an early contender for album highlight, while an autotune breakdown late in the song indicates the direction that this album is heading in. Ahhhh, autotune, such a ubiquitous, and yet widely misunderstood, tool in today's music industry: most mainstream pop music is positively drenched in it, always made more obvious when those artists perform live and a trainwreck ensues (several examples could have been found in last week's Grammy ceremony). Still, even the most talented singers in the industry tend to use autotune, mostly due to the fact that we as listeners have come to expect perfection in our studio recorded albums. Recently, a wave of T Pains and the like have given autotune a more gimmicky application, and fun.'s record uses it as such here, but it's done in a way that suits the songs and one that results in a record that is a true sonic feast. Make no mistake, Reuss is a terrific vocalist (for proof of this, look no further than "Carry On," another infectious pop song that would function just as well in a stripped-down acoustic arrangement as it does on record, with bass and heavy drum machines buffing up the sound). Even for those who have trouble getting used to the autotune as a part of this band's sound, by the time "Some Nights" explodes into a climactic spoken word section, I have a feeling they'll be hard pressed to care.

On my first listens to this record, I couldn't help marveling at the classic pop melodies Reuss and co. seem to come up with so easily: melodic verse lines and irresistible choruses that are so instantly memorable that I found myself wondering how no one else had stumbled upon them yet. "Carry On" is certainly one; "Why Am I the One," with an intro guitar part straight out of a Modest Mouse song and sweeping chorus harmonies, is another. "All Alone" and "All Alright" defy their titles, with the former being a ridiculously catchy pop song that's destined for a more than a few dance-in-the-car moments and the latter being one of the album's more subdued numbers (subdued being a relative term). "I've got nothing left inside my chest, but it's all alright," Reuss sings, over a bed of pianos, synths, bass and a choir, and surrounded by a massive wall of pop production. Much like Mat Kearney did with Young Love last year, Some Nights takes what is more or less fun.'s traditional sound and filters it through a more beat heavy, hip-hop influenced production. The result is a record that will prove polarizing among fans, but one that I think is ultimately more rewarding than the band's debut. 

That said, Some Nights isn't free of miss-steps, and when they occur, it's more the fault of the production than it is the songwriting. "One Foot" is a perfect example: it's a good song that circulated in a live version prior to the release of the record, but it doesn't quite gel with the studio arrangement or production. The song is still more than worthwhile, but there's a definitely sense that it could have been something greater. Elsewhere, "It Gets Better" is a textbook example of filler, a throwaway track with a grating chorus that steals a spot that would have been much better occupied by "Out on the Town," the album's "bonus track" and one of the best songs here.

Ultimately, the proper closer, the seven-minute "Stars" will epitomize everything that fans of the album love about it and everything that detractors think is wrong with it. In my eyes, it's the high water mark for the album: a masterfully climactic blend of pop, the band's alt-rock roots, hip hop and electronic music that serves as the perfect showcase for Reuss's vocal talents, the band's new musical direction, and the album's undeniably impressive production work. While it begins as a fairly straightforward pop-rock song, "Stars" builds into a haze of auto-tune and heavy beats, climaxing with a euphoric chorus of vocodor-enhanced voices. "No one's gonna save me now," Reuss sings, and despite the fact that his voice is layered with production and altered ten times over from its original state, it's the most vocally cutting and emotional moment of the album: even after a dozen listens, chills still run down my spine at that moment, and that alone is enough to make me a champion of the electronic influences the band adopts here. 

Just as the album began in Queen territory, it finishes thoroughly enthralled in the influence of Kanye West, whose 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy served as the band's primary influence throughout the recording process. That album's co-producer, Jeff Bhasker, masterminds the sonic orchestra on display here, and Reuss and his vocodor carries the album out in a way that very much recalls West's "Runaway," another epic song that the band actually covered on their last tour. That song and album's influence run rampant throughout the entire record, supplemented here and there by hints of Bon Iver (also involved with Fantasy and another figure who's been redefining what autotune can do), or by the eternal presence of classic pop acts like the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The resulting album sounds as fresh as it does musically-referential, and despite the fact that many fans of fun. and the Format will probably find the pervasive hip hop and electronic motifs jarring, in time I think this record could easily be regarded as the album where one of the best bands working in the industry today rightfully rose to the top. Who knows, if these guys get a few more big hits under their belts, maybe a Grammy could be in their future. And while, in light of the new Bruce Springsteen album (which is a masterpiece--more on that later), I can no longer say what I initially wanted to about this album (that it's the best thing I've heard all year), it's certainly a more than worthy runner up, and I'd be willing to put money on it ending up somewhere in my top ten at the end of the year. There will inevitably be cries accusing the band of "selling out," but as long as their doing so sounds this good, all the more power to them.


  1. Am I alone in thinking that the whole Some Nights album could be reordered into some sort of Broadway show/rock opera? After multiple listenings, the huge production value, catchy tunes with poignant lyrics, and even a sense of a story line, I came to this conclusion.

    1. I can't say I've caught much of a storyline in there, but I definitely see what you mean: it's got that big, bombastic, cabaret sound, and most of these songs would lend themselves very well to that environment. "Stars" would make one hell of a finale onstage.