Jared Leto is nothing if not ambitious, though replace that with narcissistically self-important and it wouldn’t be wrong either. The funny thing about it is how so much serious, pretentious creative energy goes towards the most mundane of projects; his ridiculous method acting to play The Joker in Suicide Squad has been reported on to an ample degree, all for fifteen minutes of screen time in an already sub-par film. It’s no different with Thirty Seconds To Mars either, which in recent years has become little more than a vehicle for Leto to unleash his “genius” and “vision” via the medium of sub-par arena rock, primarily in his self-directed music videos, like the heavy-handed attempt at a provocative arthouse piece for Hurricane, or City Of Angels which devolved into a masturbation session over all the celebrities in his address book. Even with America, the gears of Leto’s grandiose plans have already been set into motion, with six covers listing representations of America in different fields (with the one we’ve used being the de facto “real” cover, embarrassingly) but also with the opportunity for fans to create their own list for an individual piece of artwork, and use their own personal representation of America to plaster on the new album.
That couldn’t sound more like one of Leto’s self-indulgent schemes, and fittingly, the final product can’t even hope to match the intended size or sense of importance. Even so, at least Thirty Seconds To Mars’ past material had the arena-rock bombast that could potentially masquerade as something deeper or more substantial; America, on the other hand, is a predictable move towards modern pop that’s utterly crippled such a sizable quotient of rock’s other heavy hitters. But while the past contributions of Fall Out Boy and Linkin Park have earned them enough good will to survive the ill-advised transition, Thirty Seconds To Mars’ back catalogue has never been so illustrious, and thus the empty, flat maximalism of America becomes an even more bitter pill to swallow.
The problem is the way that Thirty Seconds To Mars to about it, namely by co-opting basic pop trends in a manner that feels so flimsy and malformed. It’s actually impressive now they manage to flit between tones at will, and yet manage to make almost every one sound just as unworkable as the last. Probably the most agreeable are the EDM- and house-influenced tracks like Dangerous Night and Rescue Me, partly because there are hands in the pot who actually know what they’re doing in this field (Zedd contributes production to the former), and partly because they aren’t that far removed from Thirty Seconds To Mars’ usual uber-populist stadium-fillers. That’s the impression that it feels like the band were under, but considering tracks like Walk On Water and Great Wide Open have a similar scale but feel aimless and colourless in their execution, it’s not one that’s been adhered to that well. Even worse is the embrace of dark, heavy beats as a tactic to feign some kind of worthiness, but One Track Mind and Hail To The Victor just end up feeling like such wasted opportunities to really try for something heavy as a result. The one song here that can comfortably be called a highlight is Remedy, where drummer Shannon Leto takes centre stage for an earthy, subdued acoustic number with actual heart and texture behind it. It would definitely nice if this was a more prominent feature here, rather than an already overbearingly expansive sound blown out even further with Jared Leto’s self-importance left to patch up the gaps.
And you can really tell that America was built from the ground up as The Jared Leto Show, from the documentary and cross-country journey undertaken to promote this album’s release, to the fact that his bandmates are barely audible for a good portion of it. And as always, there’s the attempts to turn his rather mundane musings into some grandiose piece of high art that comes across as unspeakably pretentious, particularly for a band who’ve partly made their name from simple, arena-ready choruses. And yet from the clattering interlude Monolith to the French spoken-word sample that opens Dawn Will Rise, America so desperately wants to push itself into a high-minded area but comes crashing down in record time. For all the references to “bloodlust in a holy war” on Walk On Water, it doesn’t stop it from falling into the most basic self-esteem anthem template (as well as a messiah complex becoming text which really is too funny to ignore). It’s why Halsey feels like the perfect fit opposite Leto on Love Is Madness, two faux-edgy, inflated-to-the-point-of-bursting egos colliding in one perfect storm of insufferability that the leaden beat does nothing to rectify. And yet hers isn’t even the most embarrassing presence here, as A$AP Rocky on One Track Mind delivers the utter gem “Heard it’s only thirty seconds to Mars / And it took you even less to get to my heart”, likely a drastic low point in his career for the foreseeable future.
But that’s also true for Thirty Seconds To Mars overall here, as America just feels like a complete mess from start to finish. It’s not a surprise that this is the direction they’ve chosen to go in, but the fact that there’s almost no knowledge to speak of on display of how to find a suitable workaround is certainly troubling. And this is a band who can do the big, grand pop songs with consummate ease, but America is a hefty regression, throwing away anything that gave Thirty Seconds To Mars even a vestige of likability to dumb everything down to the nth degree, and the fact that the egotism and highfalutin atmosphere takes precedence over decent songcraft kneecaps this album to no end. Maybe it’ll appeal to Thirty Seconds To Mars fans who just want something new to scream along to, but anything would be preferable to something as profoundly empty as this.
For fans of: Fall Out Boy, The Chainsmokers, Halsey
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘America’ by Thirty Seconds To Mars is out now on Interscope Records.