The best pop-punk bands never tend to stay in pop-punk. Bands like The Wonder Years have moved into emo or straightforward alt-rock territory to increase their fortunes there, and while it’s not exactly an extensive list, there tends to be a quality jump that’s hard to ignore. And on their 2015 self-titled album, The Story So Far attempted to conquer that jump. Now, despite the floods of critical and commercial acclaim they’ve received, The Story So Far have never been among the “best” pop-punk bands; they’ve been hugely influential to a new generation, sure, but they were also largely responsible for popularising the surly bro stereotype that got exhausting in record time thanks to overexposure from both bands and fans alike. But given that their last album saw them shedding that image almost entirely to experiment with tones more reminiscent of grunge and shoegaze, the indications that The Story So Far could actually find some stable footing and make some more interesting, grown-up music in the process were more real than ever.
But even compared to their last album, Proper Dose is another very different effort again, built primarily around the emo and ‘90s alt-rock that’s fared The Wonder Years so well for more personal, introspective material. But while The Story So Far would have trouble matching up to The Wonder Years on even their best days, Proper Dose feels disappointingly uneven, showing a band who are certainly aware of what they want to do but lack the seasoning to execute it properly, at least over the course of a full album. And that means, for the second album in a row, The Story So Far have released what essentially boils down to a placeholder, where they’re touching on trying something new without committing to it too significantly. They’ve got the ability to do just, as evidenced by when Proper Dose really hits its stride, but the fact that never materialises in a consistent fashion is disappointing to say the least.
It’s even more disappointing when, fundamentally, The Story So Far are doing a lot right here. The biggest plaudits easily go to the production, and with Eric Valentine on mixing duty bringing his experience working with Third Eye Blind to the table, it gives Proper Dose that similarly quieter, more intimate college-rock feel that feels like something of a logical step after their last attempt at embracing the ‘90s resurgence. Here though, there’s a bit more of a contemporary spin; tracks like Out Of It and If I Fall feel like The Story So Far incorporating sounds into their existing formula rather than reinventing themselves altogether, and when that’s done effectively, the transition feels more smooth and natural to fit a band maturing over time. As such, there’s a greater lyrical focus on self-examination and the passage of time, and with Parker Cannon staying in a lower, more equable register instead of the brash shouting that felt so out of place on previous work, it lends a poignancy to tracks like Upside Down and Growing On You that feels earned and lived-in.
And if they could just conceivably keep it up the entire time, this could easily be a great album, but that’s unfortunately where Proper Dose stumbles the most. In a way, it’s almost similar to As It Is’ problem on The Great Depression earlier this year, a band into what’s evidently a direction they’ll get more mileage from in the long run, but burdened with a reluctance to go the whole way. But at least with As It Is, the leap was to harder material; for The Story So Far and the move they’re making to ultimately milder music, it doesn’t have as many workable individual components. That’s why dipping into more traditional pop-punk tracks with Need To Know and Light Year feel awkward here, because they’re attempting to combine lighter textures with naturally chunkier songwriting and presentation, and the pieces don’t fit together (as well as the fact that the former is still trying to make double-time drums work). It’s even more mismatched with the gentle acoustic ballad Take Me As You Please, or Line with its focus on light synths and more rounded, textured percussion, to the point where Proper Dose can feel more like a grab-bag of ideas than anything truly thought out.
They’re still good ideas though, and The Story So Far prove on this very album that, when fashioned to work as fully-formed pieces, they’re fully capable of standing on their own and representing a real, exciting phase of evolution for a band who desperately needed it. But that’s not now, and with both this and they’re self-titled album before it, it’s getting more and more frustrating to see workable styles sampled without ever being settled on. Admittedly what’s here feels like a more natural progression from their flagship pop-punk, but it needs to take more shape than it is here. As of now, Proper Dose has opened a door, and it’s up to the band to decide whether they want to explore inside it.
For fans of: Transit, Jimmy Eat World, Real Friends
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Proper Dose’ by The Story So Far is out now on Pure Noise Records.