There’s a certain amount of trepidation around a new Sum 41 album, mostly because it’s hard to know where they are as a band. It was clear when they returned in 2016 with 13 Voices, an album chronicling frontman Deryck Whibley’s struggles with alcoholism and the demons he had to purge on the road to sobriety, but what’s next? It’s a similar case as what dogged albums like Underclass Hero and Screaming Bloody Murder; at that point, Sum 41 had fallen out of the pop-punk pack that All Killer No Filler had firmly established them in, leaving them feeling placeless and the albums suffering as a result. To be fair, it didn’t happen to them exclusively – by that point, most of the pop-punk class of 2001 were experiencing some problem or another – but especially now, it feels like Sum 41 have less to fall back on overall. It’s a difficult sentiment to rationalise, but where Green Day have reached legend status and The Offspring have the benefit of further history and a fanbase whose shown their dedication by putting up with a lot more, Sum 41 sort of just exist within the scene with fewer defined expectations of them. That could indeed be a benefit, but given what Order In Decline’s singles have shown thus far in their willingness to dart throughout their musical oeuvre regardless of fit, it still feels worth approaching with caution.
But thankfully – and somewhat surprisingly – a lot of those worries feel unfounded, as Order In Decline comes together with a fair amount of ease as a solid to generally good punk album. That’s definitely a pleasant revelation, especially given the disparate and bitty a lot of the singles could feel on their own, but even more than that, it puts paid a lot of the worries of Sum 41’s place in modern music and serves as the natural continuation for them; if 13 Voices was a band clambering back from the brink of destruction, Order In Decline sees them digging their heels in to fight for survival at a time when that seems so desperately difficult. It doesn’t always click, but Sum 41 have landed on a pleasantly high ebb overall, and that’s worth a lot of praise.
The biggest point of relevance there comes in the sonic moves that have been made on this album, as Sum 41 have almost moved away from pop-punk entirely to fully embrace the hardcore and thrash influences that have previously been little more than garnish. It feels like a suitable shift to make for this continued reinvention as a more grown-up rock band, ditching a lot of the bounciness and pop-friendliness of previous efforts for something with a lot more muscle, with a technicality and intensity on 45 (A Matter Of Time) and especially The People Vs… that show how well-suited they are to crossing over into these heavier realms. Dave Baksh’s guitar work has always stood out high above the band’s pop-punk peers, but there’s genuine metallic fire that comes through here, established early on with the blistering solo on opener Turning Away and remaining rather consistent throughout. Coupled with crunchier production that only accentuates how deep into this sound Sum 41 are willing to go (as well as Whibley’s hardcore-flavoured barks on A Death In The Family to seemingly cut any old ties altogether), there’s a hunger to this album that can’t be ignored, especially when placed in the context of the band’s journey to get here. That does take precedence over catchiness though, and indeed, a lack of standout hooks combined with a few slightly more unconventional song structures sends Sum 41 hurtling into territory that they don’t quite feel equipped to deal with yet. That’s not to say they don’t make a good go at it, and when most of Order In Decline is as adrenalised as it is, they definitely seem to succeed, but with missteps like the jerky rock ‘n’ roll riff of Heads Will Roll or the closing ballad Catching Fire that simply feels unnecessary after the far better Never There, it’s clear that Sum 41 are still finding their feet here as a whole. They’re definitely making the right strides, but they’re not quite long enough to get all the way there just yet.
However, what feels unequivocally worth the praise with Order In Decline is what Sum 41 are saying, and how they’re using their experiences – both personal and as elder statesmen within the scene – to say it. Because as previously mentioned, this is an album about survival, and for as hackneyed an overarching theme as that could’ve been, especially when every band is rushing out of the door to get their political album out, this does feel genuine in its intent. The band have explicitly stated that this isn’t a political album, and while cuts like The New Sensation and 45 (A Matter Of Time) certainly have some scathing words for the current presidential administration, the fact that the whole thing hasn’t been boiled down to that one point shows a well-roundedness when it comes to forging a more serious musical front. Heads Will Roll once again feels like the only real outlier as an exercise in chest-puffing that really accomplishes very little; elsewhere though, A Death In The Family feels like the most real call of solidarity with the younger people yet at the thought of having their futures decided by older generations, while Never There sees Whibley examining the impact having an absent father has caused on him, but also the resilience that he’s built up because of it. And that’s really the kicker about Order In Decline as a whole, in that it feels like a band who know where they stand within the musical landscape, and have pressed forward with it as a driving force.
It mightn’t seem like much, especially when that’s arguably the most common thread in rock these days, but Sum 41’s efforts have the weight behind them of a band for whom this struggle has been real, and it’s taking real effort to keep themselves stable. It’s a powerful thought, and Order In Decline manages to regularly hit a point where that notion really does come through, and the results are among some of Sum 41’s most driven and rampaging to date. The hiccups are there but they’re generally minor, and at a time when the pop-punk vanguard are taking the easy route by trending to pure pop, to see a band like Sum 41 stick to their guns and go for broke like this has a lot of impact. It’s far from the best of the year or anything, but it’s yet another example of how Sum 41 are not a band to count out; they really do surprise when it’s needed most.
For fans of: Rise Against, Rival Schools, Billy Talent
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Order In Decline’ by Sum 41 is out now on Hopeless Records.