Mercury Records, 2012
Two and a half stars
A song like "Mad Love," as insultingly bad as it is, could be forgiven if the rest of the album went in the opposite direction, but unfortunately, for the majority of Picture Show, it seems like Neon Trees are content to travel down the middle of the pop music road. The disco slow-burn of "Close to You" or the thumping dance-floor beat of "Lessons in Love" are ideas with serious potential, but the songs that are built around them just never go anywhere. Elsewhere, lukewarm throwaways like "Hooray for Hollywood" make the album's 46 minute runtime feel much longer than it is. Numerous distracting interludes extend some of the album's better moments for no apparent reason, like the minute-long loop that plays at the end of the darkly atmospheric "Trust," or the similar augmentation on the closer "I am the D.J.," which leaves the record feeling much more anti-climactic than it needed to be. And always, there's the gimmicky '80s production, layered over nearly every corner of every arrangement, seeking to make the songs and ideas here sound more nostalgic and more meaningful than they actually are. Throughout Picture Show, it feels like Neon Trees are trying to fill the musical void that was left when The Killers ditched the new-wave synths and club-ready beats of "Hot Fuss" in favor of classic rock influences and Springsteen's everyman mentality, but Glenn doesn't have the voice than Brandon Flowers does, nor do his songs reach the stratospheric levels of radio pop-rock that his band's forerunners tapped into so easily. The result is a record of mostly-disposable pop music that will sound great on the radio or in the club, but won't have much lasting value past this summer season.
Luckily, even despite so many missteps and botched opportunities, Picture Show does at least have a handful of triumphs, and they are just enough to salvage the record. The aforementioned "Weekend" should be a single, with its lively themes of escapism, young love, and nighttime immortality making the song as sweeping and satisfying as any well-executed pop tune should be. Meanwhile, the closing one-two punch of "Still Young" and "I am the D.J." find the band as close to no-frills as they get, with simple pop-rock hooks and far less distracting production; the ringing guitar intro in the former sounds nearly anthemic, while the latter demands a sing along and closes the album perfectly, even despite the exitlude blunder. Songs like these are absolute gems, with addictive melodic motives and lyrics that, while not particularly striking or memorable, at least reach for something beyond dance-floor tropes. Overall though, Picture Show is a frustrating album, and that's because it strikes a bizarre balance between the very good and the remarkably bad. When the band drops the gimmicks and works a little harder to fit some decent lyrics into their strong hooks, the results are terrific, but more often, they fall short of that. More than half of this record displays a band that is content to write lazy songs that fit into a caricature of '80s nostalgia, rather than to reach for something real or artistically credible, and the resulting music, while catchy, is dumb, hollow, and forgettable. While that may fit into today's radio format, we should have the sense to demand more from our pop music...especially from the artists that so obviously have the talent to deliver it.