Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Motion City Soundtrack - Go

Epitaph/Boombox Generation, 2012
Four stars

Next to a lot of the artists who "broke through to the mainstream" during the popularity explosion of the pop-punk/emo/pop-rock scenes early in the last decade, Motion City Soundtrack have certainly proven to be one of the best, surpassing contemporaries like Fall Out Boy, Panic at the Disco, and New Found Glory either in longevity, prolificism, or overall quality and consistency of work. Out of that same scene, only fans of Jimmy Eat World have experienced a similar flourishing of returns, and no one has covered as much musical and thematic ground over the course of five albums. Much of this success must be credited to frontman Justin Pierre, whose soaring tenor voice and confessional lyrics have kept fans connected to the band, even as they have matured and gone through major shifts in sound. The biggest of those was made on 2007's Even if it Kills Me, where the band shed much of their rock sound in favor of pop sensibilities, delivering sky-high hooks, sugary production, and even a centerpiece piano ballad. While the response to that album was, overall, quite mixed, I've always thought it was their best work, both as a set of songs (the writing is incredibly strong throughout) and as a cohesive album (Pierre's battle with his own demons has never been more resonant). Adversely, I thought 2010's My Dinosaur Life, was a strikingly inconsistent record, featuring some of the band's best songs to date ("Skin and Bones," "The Weakends," "Her Words Destroyed My Planet") alongside some of their very worst (the grating "@!#?@!" and the faux-O.A.R. frat-boy rock of "History Lesson").

Enter Go, the excellent fifth full-length album from the Minneapolis-based band, and arguably their finest work to date. That's not going to be evident to a lot of people on first listen though. Indeed, throughout the first day that I spent with Motion City Soundtrack's latest, I thought it was little more than a very good summer album: the titanic hooks and pop-ready production from Even if it Kills Me are back, and right from the propulsive opener ("Circuits and Wires"), Go feels like the kind of record you throw on for driving around town throughout the summer. When I first started thinking of angles from which to approach this review, the "fun summer pop album" seemed like the stereotype I was destined to go with, but then I sat down and really listened to what Pierre is saying here, and everything changed. At its heart, Go is a record about the duality life and death, and with that theme in mind, it's their most cohesive work to date. Pierre has gone on record about the title, saying that "Go can mean to leave, to give up, to give in, die, basically, or Go can mean to choose life, to live, to experience, to exist, and those emotions and ideas color every song on this album, giving it a heroic and emotional arc, and making it one of the most fully-realized records of the year.

If you're paying attention, the theme is set early on. "I am all motors and gadgets/Organically designed to last a finite length of time," Pierre sings on "Circuits and Wires," and the shadow of death is never far from the proceedings here. He cycles through a pair of dysfunctional love songs (first single "True Romance," whose bridge is an album highpoint, both musically and lyrically, and the already-divisive "Son of a Gun") before launching into the album's centerpiece section. "Timelines," especially, is vintage Motion City Soundtrack, hitting upon the pop-heavy sound of Commit This to Memory and Even if it Kills Me at the beginning, and building into the same kind of feverish bridge that marked many of the songs on Dinosaur Life. Watching the progression play out over the course of the song's four minutes is fitting, as the lyrics chart a similar progression offering both an immersion in nostalgia and a question of fate ("Do you ever wonder how you got to here?" Pierre asks repeatedly). It's the perfect lead in to the album's best and most sobering moment. "Everyone Will Die" is a tremendous symphony of a pop song, a gorgeously moving and innately heartbreaking slam-dunk that is both the album's most affecting number and its most immediate. "It doesn't mean goodbye, it's just a simple truth/The shedding of a lifetime of layers that once embodied you" Pierre croons over a bed of acoustic guitars and synthy ambiance: it's the perfect conclusion to the record's first side, but it's only the middle of the story.

Go is nearly as stellar throughout its second half as it is for its first, but even the songs that aren't 100% successful have their place here, like the insanely catchy "Coma Kid" or the darkly atmospheric "Boxelder." But the final two songs bring us fully back into the album's plot, and it is in these songs that the duality of death and life, between giving up and fighting on, is most palpably felt. The harrowing "Happy Anniversary" epitomizes the former, and it's arguably the darkest song the band has ever penned. The lyrics may play out like a suicide note, but Pierre has said he wrote the song about his grandmother, who died of cancer several years ago, and the words envision her final days of life. "Settle our accounts," "send the kids my love," "time has run its course" the choruses begin, building to the album's most crushingly emotional climax as the white flag is finally waved and life fades. Album closer "Floating Down the River" is the opposite: where "Happy Anniversary" is a surrender, the album's grand finale is an affirmation and a vow to try harder, to live life to the fullest. Just as "Everyone Will Die" ended side one encouraging us to cherish the people and things we love in this life, "Floating Down the River" ends the album on a high note of uplift, and even though it may lack some of the visceral climactic power of past closers (stuff like "Hold Me Down" or "Even if it Kills Me" - still the band's best song), I can hardly imagine a better send-off.

Go is not, song-for-song, a perfect record, nor does it always make good on its ambitious thematic material, but at its finest moments, it is everything the band envisioned and more: it's the finest front-to-back collection of songs they've penned to date, elevated even further by numerous outstanding highlights; it's the perfect balance between their pop sound and their darker, edgier rock side; and lastly, it's the most cohesive and magnetic lyrical journey Pierre has taken us on yet. When he bared his soul and discussed his battle with addiction on Even if it Kills Me, the results were devastating, cathartic, and unforgettable, but here, he offers us with something that is even easier to relate to. Because, just as he sings, "everyone will die," but what matters is the question at hand: what are we going to do with the time that's been given to each of us? It may not resonate with everyone right away, and it most certainly won't hit each listener in exactly the same way it has hit me, but "Go" is the kind of record that could prove to be a "scene classic" and an all-time favorite for a lot of people ten years down the road. It's the kind of record people return to for answers and for comfort years after the release date, and while I can't see yet how it will compare to my other favorite albums of 2012, every time I turn up the volume and sink into these songs, I don't feel so inclined to care.


  1. Woah! Again, I have to tell you: you are my (musical) hero. It's like I'm reading my own words! I've been a fan of Motion City Soundtrack for years now, and I also reckon Even If It Kills Me is their best album (and also my favourite). Or should I say 'reckoned'? I've just heard Go for the first time, and I agree with you completely: it is a magnificent peace of work! I did not quite dig My Dinosaur Life either, and I utterly worship Commit This to Memory, but I have to admit that I'm already hooked on this one! I also wanted to say, 'Men, your writing is swell! It's always a pleasure to read music reviews so damn-well written. Keep it up, you wise music guru! Ps. I'd really like to know your opinion on two of my personal favourite bands of all times: Dashboard Confessional and Say Anything. Cheers and greetings from Spain!

    1. Thanks a ton for all of your kind words, I really appreciate them. And I'm glad you like the record: any favorite songs yet?

      Dashboard is one of my favorite bands, for sure. I'm never quite able to rank their (his) stuff, but I love all of their records, with the exception of "The Shade of Poison Trees," which always felt like a pale imitation of their early stuff to me. "Swiss" and "Places" are great, but I'm the rare fan who prefers their electric stuff, and the even rarer one who would probably call "Dusk and Summer" their 'best' record (all for reasons of personal connection which I explained in these two posts: http://furtherfromthesky.blogspot.com/2012/03/dont-give-away-end-my-favorite-opening.html and http://furtherfromthesky.blogspot.com/2011/08/days-like-that-should-last-and-last.html, if you're interested).

      Beyond that, both "Alter the Ending" and "A Mark, A Mission" are gems. I'm glad Chris has, "Shade" excepted, continued to make the music that he wants to make, despite the outcry of his early fans. Bonus points for teaming up with Butch Walker on "Ending," which sounds massive thanks to his production and Carrabba's hooks. But again, the early stuff is class too. Have you ever heard the live version of "The Best Deceptions" from the Henry Rollins show? So much better than the album take, and a version that leaves me tempted to call it his best song.

      Can't say I've ever spent much time with Say Anything. They're hit or miss with me in general: "Is a Real Boy" and self-titled are solid efforts, but I'm not a fan of the new one or "Genre," and I don't love any of them.

  2. Oh. My. God. I can't even... Get out of my head! "The Best Deceptions" is my all-time favourite Dashboard Confessional song! In fact, when I'm at home playing guitar and singing (or at least trying to) I always end up singing this superb song. I've read your two posts, and I wanted to tell you that I've never met anyone in my whole life with so similar opinions, impressions and likings in music. Dashboard Confessional is probably my favourite band (altough it is almost impossible to pick just one), and I completely agree with your views on their albums. I worship Chris Carrabba; he's an inspiration to me and I've always been a fan of all his work. I like both their rocky style and their acoustic one, and it was one of the first bands I discovered back when I was in high school so it's really special for me. "Swiss" and "Places" I adore, but I reckon that "A Mark" and "Ending" (which has become one of the most meaningful albums of the past few years for me) are just spactacular, but if I had to choose I'd definetely say "Dusk & Summer", for it has in it some of my favourites tunes like 'Vindicated' or 'Stolen', from which I took my blog's url ;) Regarding "Shade", I as well think it's their "poorest" album, even though I dig some tunes very much like 'Where There's Gold...' or the 'The Shade of Poison Trees' itself, from which I taken my Twitter name, in fact, and I cannot say I despise that album or anything. By the way, I heard the Henry Rollins Show last night and oh, boy, it was so great! I liked it better than the track from the album indeed, and I just felt in love with the song (and Chris) all over again.

    Say Anything, specially with their self-titled album, I believe it's a grand band, with some of the best lyrics I've ever read or listened to. That's one my all-time favourite album and the genius of Max Bemis I think it's quite incredible. I also think that "...Is A Real Boy" it's a tremendous album, although I do not like "Anarchy My Dear" nor "Genre", but I think they're an excellent band that keeps making music for themselves and not for other people to like it, and I reckon they have a very original style. When I think about MCS, I always picture Max Bemis in 'Hello Helicopter', which is one of my favourite songs from "Even If It Kills Me". Speaking of which, I don't know if I have a favourite song yet from "Go", but I can say that I feel like there's two kinds of tunes: the catchy-happy little songs like 'True Romance', 'Son of a Gun', 'The Coma Kid' or 'Boxelder' (which I fancy very much!), and there's these epic tunes which are kind of hymns even like 'Circuits & Wires', 'Everyone Will Die', 'The Worst Is Yet to Come' (which right now I think it's probably my favourite tune from the album, for I really like that obscure tone of it) or 'Happy Aniversary'. Overall, I think it is a fantastic album and it's been like 100 scrobblings in two days so again thank you!

    Ps. I've been wanting to ask you this a long time now... I was wondering if you had an e-mail account, Last.fm account, Twitter or something so we could "chat" about music, for I really feel like I could lear so much from you, and I would really enjoy talking music with you sometime. But maybe this is way out of line. If it is, then I'm sorry, I didn't mean to intrude. It's just that you have been such a revelation, musically speaking, that I think it would be great to share some impressions about our favourite bands and stuff, if that's alright with you, of course. Here's my Twitter and Last.fm accounts: https://twitter.com/#!/poisontrees and http://www.last.fm/user/ClarusPollus. Cheers!

    1. Yeah, Shade isn't a complete waste, it's just unquestionably his worst. The title track and the closer were the only ones I ever really cared for though. Most of it feels like a shameless attempt to recapture the past, but he doesn't have the material or the emotional furor to do it accurately, and he sounds notably strained vocally.

      I'm flattered! I'll send you a friend request on Last.fm, and you can follow me on Twitter if you like (I'm under FurtherFromSky), but I pretty much only use it for tweeting blog posts and reviews on the site I write for. As for sharing impressions, this is probably the best place to do that (as long as it stays somewhat within the topic of the post), but Last would be fine too.

  3. Great, great review. I just have a few remarks:

    1. I completely agree with your statement that 'Even If It Kills Me' is their best album to date.

    2. I disagree with your opinion that @!#?@! is one of their worst songs. I do, however, see your point when you say that about History Lesson. It is one inconsistent and... different song. I guess I just like it because I grew accustomed to listening to it.

    3. Coma Kid is, indeed, insanely catchy.

    4. I've never paid attention to the album's lyrics as a whole. I guess I might do that now.

    1. Thanks a lot!

      1) EIIKM is incredible. That and Jimmy Eat World's Chase This Light (both of which came out at around the same time) went in very similar directions, and hit me in very similar ways at that time in my life. I've always sort of grouped them together since, though I can't say CTL is my favorite JEW album.

      2) That song and "Delirium" are the ones on MDL that I really don't like. I can understand why others might see differently, but the melodies grate on me and I think the lyrics are among their weakest. I actually don't hate "History Lesson" (though I still think it's weak), it just doesn't fit on that album at all. It should have been a b-side, but I skip it less than the other two.

      3) That it is. Still probably my least favorite song on the disc (that or "Boxelder") but that's partially because it comes after "Everyone Will Die."

      4) Do that. Pierre is an underrated lyricist, and that's on display here more than it ever has been in the past. The melodies are great, but the lyrics take these songs to another level.