When history reaches a consensus about Say Anything’s place within emo, hopefully it’ll be stressed how misrepresented they’ve been for so long. The conversation surrounding them has long seen the logistics of their work eclipsing the music itself, like the myriad of guest performers on In Defense Of The Genre or how their most prevalent song in the public eye is the throwaway electro-pop cut Wow I Can Get Sexual Too, to the point where, on albums like Hebrews and I Don’t Think It Is – running the gamut from critically reviled to having its existence generally forgotten altogether – it’s felt like Max Bemis has being trying to play to that exact frame of mind. With just those too releases, the focus of discussion has almost universally been placed on pivoting in wacky musical directions or off-kilter release strategies rather than musical output, and thus it makes sense that Oliver Appropriate sits as potentially Say Anything’s final album, unable to make those sorts of concessions anymore in favour of simply solid music. Right now, the best they can hope for is to go out on a high note to capture some of the acclaim of their earlier material, and given that it’s adopted a more traditional campaign in the lead-up to release, that’s at least a good first step if nothing else.
Of course, to leave that as the definitive evaluation of this album would a gross oversimplification of what it’s actually trying to say. After all, this is an album framed as a sequel to the band’s seminal and highly controversial 2004 album …Is A Real Boy, a fact in itself that makes this about as fitting as a final album comes, but also what puts a deeper analysis as a priority. That’s because it’s primarily an album about growth and self-understanding, as the protagonist Oliver serves as a stand-in for Bemis as he develops a relationship with another man and begins to question his sexuality. The parallels are easy to identify (Bemis came out as bisexual in 2018), but the pattern of growth that’s occurred between both albums. As much as …Is A Real Boy paints its narrator as a cynical, misogynistic burnout, Oliver Appropriate attempts to tie up the unexplored loose ends; Oliver’s own attitudes came as a result of his homophobic father on Your Father, and When I’m Acid unravels the cynicism that’s been a part of him for so long as he begins to discover who he really is. And yet, it doesn’t really end with anything; the relationship doesn’t work, Oliver is still entrenched in his own narcissism, and it’s ultimately a murder-suicide that brings it all to a close. It’s not a satisfying or pleasant ending, but it’s not supposed to be. Life isn’t satisfying or pleasant, something that both Bemis and many Say Anything fans will be able to attest to, and for as brusquely as this album frames it, emotionality sometimes wins in the end. It can seem a remarkably defeatist note to go out on, but for a die-on-stage album, you can’t really expect much more, and as an exploration of the hubristic shortcomings of a frontman who’s never been shy about that in the first place, it’s about as human as an album like this gets.
And yes, that’s not really a conclusion, but Oliver Appropriate doesn’t invite one, especially when it’s comprised of short, detailled passages that feel as uncertain as they leave the listener. If anything though, it’s arguably where the album is at its most complete, condensing each down to a rather minimal set-up, primarily of acoustic guitar and touches of percussion, but bringing out a poppy, melodic accessibility that Say Anything haven’t adopted to this extent in years. There’s a twang to tracks like Daze and Pink Snot that’s reminiscent of The Front Bottoms, both in the overall bashed-out instrumentation and in Bemis’ highly-projected, highly-accented vocals, while Mouthbreather and It’s A Process factor in a layer of rubbery synths for some extra pop-rock punch. It helps that the pace is kept brisk more often than not, allowing Bemis’ thoughts to move onto wherever they need to at any given moment, and while a track like Fired doesn’t really advance anything, keeping Oliver Appropriate as relatively straightforward as it is seems like a wise move.
It doesn’t really make it any better though, and while this is indeed one of Say Anything’s stronger late-period releases, there’s an aloofness and an impenetrability that makes this a tough listen regardless. More than anything else, it feels like an album that Bemis needed to make above anything else, and while the depth can be interesting to delve into, it’s not always an attractive or responsive album to go through. Again, it’s probably not supposed to be, but that’s a justification that can only go so far, and a remarkably interesting album like this isn’t always conducive with something great. Still, as a closing note, it feels like it does what it needs to do and closes a book – in a fashion – that needed to be brought to an end, and if nothing else, that can be respected.
For fans of: The Front Bottoms, Motion City Soundtrack, Saves The Day
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Oliver Appropriate’ by Say Anything is out now on Dine Alone Records.