There’s going to be a lot of people looking forward to this album simply to see it torn to shreds. Given that The Click was a hideous Frankenstein’s monster of an indie-pop album patching together clichés and screeching obnoxiousness by the pound, it earmarked AJR among the new punching bags when it comes to just how low the bar for ‘alternative’ music can sink, not to mention a primary vehicle to highlight the benefits of high-profile co-signs for a mainstream push when talent clearly isn’t a factor. But is the hate really all that worth it? The criticism certainly is, and the fact that AJR clearly believe themselves to be some boundary-pushing indie success is more than a bit hilarious, but compared to how the influence of someone like Imagine Dragons has laid waste to every branch of rock in its path, AJR’s comparative irrelevance can’t be overstated. Of course, a micromanaged entity like this is always going to have a team behind them working overtime to wrench them into that same position, but at the moment, Neotheater has picked up no momentum for itself to get there. The depths of awfulness that AJR clearly aren’t afraid to plumb has been made crystal clear, but simply another terrible album is far more preferable to one that’s simultaneously terrible and inescapable.
And yes, Neotheater is a better album, but only in the same way that being bludgeoned half to death is better than being straight-up murdered. It’s not hard to see why that’s the case either, as AJR are so shallow and easy to read that they clearly believe that, if the last one sold so well, why won’t doing the same thing have the same result? And yet, they seem to forget that The Click was also terrible, and subsequently, so is Neotheater, bringing back the exact same pile-up of pandering, millennial prostrations with no depth or deeper insight, and expecting that to connect with a listener base that doesn’t know any better. The cynical, market-mandated pushes are blatant once again, and with the ‘talents’ of AJR themselves, tripping over their own paper-thin messages while continuing to blurt out whatever screeching ‘genreless-ness’ they can, Neotheater is pretty much exactly the sort of shambles one would expect coming from a band as transparent and incompetent as this.
What’s truly infuriating is that AJR genuinely seem to believe that they’re being relatable or making some grand, transgressive statements, when really all they’re doing is force-feeding a young audience that thinks it’s different from everyone else exactly what it wants to hear; even the title Neotheater would suggest that this is some new and transgressive viewpoint on the world expressed with the grandiosity to make everyone sit up and take notice. Except it really isn’t, and that’s what really brings the feedback loop in tighter than ever, with such a shamelessness in their petulance towards growing up on Don’t Throw Out My Legos or a constant influx of media and information on The Entertainment’s Here. But that’s a sentiment that’s fashionable, and for all the kids who can’t quite grasp the nuances of Twenty One Pilots or Billie Eilish that can make their left-of-centre pop appealing, here’s AJR taking a sledgehammer to the face of subtlety all to make a point. As much as the ‘fashionable depression’ angle of Karma is utterly execrable, it seems perfectly on-brand for their chronic myopia, as is the zero-dimensional take on 100 Bad Days that embracing that depression and life’s hardships is enough to get by on its own; to quote, “Maybe a hundred bad days made a hundred good stories / A hundred good stories make me interesting a parties”. And it’s hard to tell whether all of this is supposed to be quirky or humorous, mostly because AJR simply drown in their own attempts as soon as they hit, whether it’s the general stupidity of criticising bands selling out on Beats only to end up begging Beats By Dre to sponsor them, or what appears to be leaning towards teen-comedy twee on Dear Winter as a presumably heartfelt address to a future child, only to become exceedingly desperate and a bit creepy when it’s revealed that the narrator hasn’t even met the child’s mother yet. Of course, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and accidental stumblings onto halfway decent ideas do occur – Birthday Party sees Jack Met delivering a more subversive stripe of social commentary from the perspective of a newborn which is a neat twist, and Turning Out, Pt. II is actually quite a heartfelt ballad performed by keyboardist Ryan Met which actually takes a more introspective direction that isn’t too badly handled. But neither of those moments are anything close to the norm, which unfortunately only gets more insufferably twee and boneless with every listen, culminating in Finale (Can’t Wait To See What You Do Next) with a self-serving attitude that only sours this album even more. There’s barely a single clue of how to make this seem grounded or as relatable as AJR clearly think it is, with the comical inflation and cartoonishness that honestly feels like it’s not even been planned out.
All of that would certainly be enough to make this an awful album, but Neotheater’s sins further extend to its presentation and how, once again, AJR’s erratic approach to music further highlights how all of this maybe isn’t for them. You would hope that, in the couple of years since The Click, they’d have picked up some greater knowledge of modulation, but if anything, Neotheater feels like an even greater pile-up, ramming layers of sound into each other with no depth or modulation that only makes it all seem all the more plastic and artificial. It’s perhaps most noticeable in the opener Next Up Forever which undercuts its perceived opulence by mashing the strings and choral backing vocals with the clattering fake beat, but with Birthday Party’s status as a drunken Pixar score complete with some of the most disgusting vocal manipulation ever put to records, Break My Face’s weedy-to-the-point-of-nonexistence fake horns to break up what’s presumably a hip-hop flow, and the tart, unnecessarily quirky guitar skips of Wow, I’m Not Crazy and Dear Winter, there’s barely a single moment on this album that provides a satisfying audio experience. Clearly the focus on bright colours and wacky cartoonishness comes first and foremost, and it’s why so much of Neotheater has to rely on attempts to sound bombastic and grand that never pay off because of how cheap this all sounds. For a band with major label backing to the extent that they have, they’re clearly not getting the resources to make a decent-sounding album, given how flattened textures abound and a deep, enriched sound is effectively a pipe dream at this point. And right at the front of all of this is Jack Met himself, sounding conveniently like Tyler Joseph with vocal lines that try to desperately cram all of this into a Twenty One Pilots-shaped mould that never really comes to fruition.
Though is any of that surprising? It’s not like AJR have been pegged to hit those same heights by anyone, even within their fanbase, and Neotheater only underlines how much ineptitude disguised as creativity this band has. And for the record, none of this is really creative; AJR and their handlers might like the audience to believe that, but this is the formless alt-pop slop that doesn’t have even a fraction of the smartness or focus of the genre’s real big players, and thinks that a pale pastiche of the overall sound is enough to get there themselves. To be at least remotely positive, it has more outright solid moments than The Click did, but even they can be counted on one hand, and relying on AJR for quality is an incredibly unreliable practice at the best of times. But that just highlights how little there really is here, and how in the grand scheme of alt-pop and indie-pop that AJR want to pander their way to the heights of, they’re still slumming it at the bottom of the ladder, and that’s where they’ll likely remain for the foreseeable future.
For fans of: Twenty One Pilots, Jon Bellion, lovelytheband
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Neotheater’ by AJR is out now on Black Butter Records.