Monday, November 21, 2011

Break the Spell (1 of 2)

Posted by Kurt

I am a semi-secret fan of Daughtry.  I liked his sound on American Idol, I loved his self-titled debut album, and I basically liked his follow-up album, Leave This Town.  I’m aware that I lose any snob street cred by liking his music, but I can’t help myself.  When I noticed an opportunity to pre-order his third album, Break the Spell, on iTunes, I put it on my credit card without a second thought.  And while, at this point, you already know whether or not you like Daughtry and are interested in a predictable third album, so it’s kind of stupid to write a review.. I am that kind of stupid, so here we go.

Overall, just as a preliminary warning, this album has more in common with Leave This Town (which Matt brilliantly and elegantly dismissed as “thunderously mediocre”) than with the first album.  Only a few tracks sound like they’ll be successful singles, and there is at least one gut-wrenchingly embarrassing song (oh, we’ll get to it, and you’ll notice when we do) (spoiler: it’s Gone Too Soon, track 8).  Still, I expect the album to be a commercial success by achieving the same artistic goals that Daughtry has set for himself in the past, and I am satisfied with that state of affairs.  Personally, I would hope for something surprising, like the amazing acoustic rock covers that Chris Daughtry has created for Lady Gaga's Pokerface and Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, but this album is designed for Daughtry’s built-in fan base, the people who miss 80s rock and want something mainstream that will point in that direction, by someone with a unique voice who deserves his success.
Basically, I get that Daughtry functions as the official band of the Tea Party, which I hate, but in this review I hope to politely forget that as often as possible.
The cover art makes that a little tough, though.  It’s a shot of the band in some kind of gray post-apocalyptic wasteland, and the only item with any color is a red star on some kind of destroyed construction object.  I think I’m supposed to see the image and believe that this band brought down the Soviet Union.  Like, recently.  And I get the impression that this band knows their audience.  Ideologically, I am not part of that audience, but I like the band anyway, so I’m willing to pretend that the album doesn’t have cover art while I listen to the music.
Let’s go track by track:
1 - Renegade.  I don’t listen to the radio except in emergencies (my iPod malfunctioning during a road trip, or as a source of news while I drive to court in a snowstorm and hope to hear that it’s canceled and I can go home), so I’m usually clueless about new singles, but iTunes insisted to me that this was the first single from the new album, and when I pre-ordered, I got this track immediately as a preview of the others on their way.  It’s very good Daughtry.  If you like Daughtry (which I do), then you’ll really enjoy the song (which I do), and otherwise.. eh.  It has a pretty standard thematic content - a celebration of the maverick nature of the singer (and, by extension, the listener), with a vague plan to drive very quickly away from the town that is keeping him down.  The music is high energy, making it a great road trip song.  Suggesting that this track would have been on a constant loop in Sarah Palin’s tour bus makes me hate it just a little, but I can’t say I disagree with the concept.  I will admit that even though I only pretend to connect with the song’s point of view, I have listened to it on repeat during at least one morning commute, all the way from my house to the office.  
2 - Crawling Back to You.  Oh, ugh.  I actually have heard this song on the loudspeaker while I was at a Subway trying to enjoy a sandwich, and I kinda wish I hadn’t.  It’s not awful, and it hits one of Daughtry’s comfort zones (“transcripts of my therapy sessions after a break-up” - see: Over You and It’s Not Over from the debut album, which I love in an occasionally self-loathing way, based largely on lyrics like “I’m slowly getting closure; I guess it’s really over”), but the lyrics are more insipid than even a Daughtry song.  I mean, it starts with “Lessons learned, bridges burned to the ground, [blah blah whatever]...  Tables turned, I’m the one who’s burning now...” and there’s a reason I hated teenage poetry by the end of my tenure as editor on my high school’s literary magazine.  I mean, I do like the speed and intensity of the chorus - this is what I expect from a Daughtry song - but the verses are just so spineless (even in light of the self-loathing theme of the song) that I really don’t want to hear this song any more than I have to.
3 - Outta My Head.  I kinda love this song.  It starts with a guitar that almost evokes a 70s funk sound, and the chorus has a strong beat.  This is a Daughtry song that you can dance to - I have no intention of ever dancing to it, but I do think this is the kind of creativity I was hoping to hear, and I wish the whole album had taken this kind of a risk.  It even has a clever self-reference in the chorus, comparing the singer’s reluctant interest to a simple song that he can’t get out of his head.. sung as part of a simple song that will stick in a listener’s head.  Sometimes I think Daughtry is secretly smarter than he’s willing to admit to his core audience, and usually I know that’s wishful thinking, but a catchy song like this makes me believe.
4 - Start of Something Good.  Oh no.  This is a slow and blandly hopeful song about being surprised by love or life or destiny or self-actualization or whatever.  It’s pretty, I guess, but it’s the musical equivalent of a couple of Valium, and it’s inoffensive enough that I know it will be background music for the next year or two of slideshows at high school graduation parties and wedding receptions.  When I hear it, I’ll smile and be polite and quietly judge the creator of the slideshow.
5 - Crazy.  This one includes lyrics like “Straight out the womb, I’ve been marked by a beast of some kind.”  And then it goes into a chorus about how the singer thinks his woman is crazy for staying with him for so long in such a clearly bad relationship before leaving him during a really painful argument, and he’s releasing her to go.  By comparing himself to the Antichrist.  It’s musically pleasant if you don’t listen to the words, but I think it’s a lie, or at least a lazy perspective on a relationship, so I dislike it.  One of my least favorite Daughtry songs ever (and I have hated me some bad Daughtry songs) is No Surprise, the first single from the Leave This Town album, which was essentially flipping the bird to a lover who should have known the singer was going to leave her.  It’s absolutely an asshole song - “Hey, I’m walking out on you, and I owe you nothing by way of explanation because, hey, this relationship has sucked for a long time now and you should have noticed,” - which is completely false.  No, you don’t have to stay with someone when you want out, but you do owe her the respect of a proper goodbye.  This song kind of fleshes out the same relationship, boiling down to “Seriously? You didn’t notice that I’m a repulsive human being?  Wow, you’re stupid for not leaving me sooner.”  It’s a shallow and juvenile sentiment that masks a defensive hurt (“I’m rejecting and belittling you now because it hurts so much that you have rejected me”), and if the song is trying to be ironic, to get the listener to realize that it’s a complete lie, then that’s actually something I’d like to hear, but I’m pretty sure that it’s a surface-level song like No Surprise, about some immature jerk, and (with full recognition that I have been that immature jerk and probably will be in the future) I find it kind of nauseating. 
(I recognize on another listen that perhaps the singer’s lover has accused him of being the Antichrist, and he’s throwing it back in her face - “If you think I’m so horrible, why did you wait so long to leave me?”  And the end does bring in a note of regret, that perhaps the singer is himself crazy for causing her the pain that drives her away, so maybe there’s a little more complexity to this song than I first noticed.  Which I like better.  But after No Surprise, I’m not inclined to give Daughtry the benefit of the doubt when it comes to break-up songs.  That was a dickhead anthem.)
6 - Break the Spell.  This title track is a singer hating his complete infatuation with someone who hurts him, drawing in images of (unsurprisingly) a moth to a flame, an addict pursuing an addiction, and other fairly obvious ideas.  It’s a little slower than I like, but still energetic enough to hold my interest, with Chris Daughtry getting to do some of his growly shouting at the end, and I don’t expect it to be a hit single, but it’s fine.  I think it suffers a bit in comparison to Outta My Head, a song with a similar message but a much more engaging presentation.
7 - We’re Not Gonna Fall.  This is an anthem encouraging lovers starting a relationship that seems doomed to failure, and it includes lines like, “We’re not gonna fall now, we’re not gonna bleed out, never gonna break down, no.”  You’ve heard songs just like this a million times and this.. I mean, it’s one of those songs.  It’s a sentiment that you probably have to own when you start a difficult relationship, but as someone who is much more likely to be one of the bystanders watching the relationship and waiting for it to fail, I don’t really care to hear the iron determination from one of the doomed lovers.  I expect many high school relationships to adopt this as their theme song approximately four months before they enjoy an ugly and public break-up.

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