In order to understand how 5 Seconds Of Summer have ended up where they currently are, it’s worth acknowledging that they were never a band that was built to last. It’s hard to imagine that they were ever positioned to be more than another group of fresh-faced prettyboys designed to ride the waves of monumentally successful One Direction support slots, but by the time Youngblood hit in 2018, it couldn’t have been more apparant that their limited shelf life was catching up to them. The move from pop-rock to straight-up pop might have been a ploy to keep them rolling along in the short term, but that album also felt tired and drained in the extreme, as if it was the work of a band dictated by an industry wanting to squeeze out every last drop of vitality rather than their own creative impulses. Hell, the fact that there’s even a follow-up at all is more than would’ve been predicted a year or two ago, but to their credit, CALM has felt buoyed by greater freedom, at least up to now. The hits might have totally dried up, but the songs released up to now haven’t given the impression that they were designed to be hits, and if that’s the angle 5 Seconds Of Summer are looking to take without fully jettisoning their place in pop just yet, there’s definite value there if they can reasonably pull it off.
But with each subsequent listen of CALM, it begins to feel more and more apparent that 5 Seconds Of Summer’s move from the mainstream spotlight isn’t intentional, and that they just don’t have any idea of what mainstream pop in 2020 is. At a time when the sound is being pushed and contorted in new ways on almost a daily basis, to see an album of wafer-thin, Maroon 5-lite cuts just doesn’t cut it by any measure, especially from a band who continue to sound exceptionally bored with the music they’re releasing. At least Youngblood occasionally had sparkles of energy and fun for as fleeting as they were; CALM barely even scrapes by with that, and without really any sort of major emotional stimulus, either positive or negative, it’s a profoundly hollow experience to get through.
Above all, it’s the fault of 5 Seconds Of Summer playing to none of their strengths across almost the entirety of CALM’s runtime. That was effectively true of Youngblood too, but any slight dregs of colour that album had have been further leached away here, and the result is a far cry from the pop-rock band that mightn’t have been deep, but they could at least be fun. Here, they almost seem embarrassed at the idea of having fun, given how drained and sluggish so much of this music is. On one hand, there’s at least a bit of crunch to the bass and buzzed-out guitar of Teeth that’s about as propulsive as this album is willing to go, but it’s a notable outlier by an almost impossible degree. So much of the rest of CALM can barely muster any sort of energy, with the default options being either joyless plods like Old Me and Not In The Same Way, or colourless pop wisps like Best Years or High that feel barely strung together with instrumental canvas of bland synths or a weedy acoustic line. Such a lack of drive really highlights how inorganic this album is too, and a lack of rock grounding that at least felt decently realised in the past leaves so little in its wake. It’s the usual combo of slapped-down percussion on top of empty, colourless production that’s occasionally made to sound a bit fuller with layered vocals, and it just doesn’t sound good or up to the standard that 5 Seconds Of Summer are capable of when they embrace their livelier, more spry impulses. There’s an attempt made at that with the splashier synths on Wildflower, but when the same end goal is in sight with the likes of Easier or Thin White Lies, it reveals how little understanding 5 Seconds Of Summer have when it comes to making pop. There’s no need to be so dour and bland because pop’s moved past that, and yet a good portion of CALM feels like it’s trapped in that dead zone where the potential to do anything of note is so drastically limited.
And when that’s topped off by the band themselves doing next to nothing to engage with the material they’ve got, it exudes even less energy or spark that CALM could really do with. Once again, the dynamic of having each band member provide vocals has been drastically cut down with Luke Hemmings seemingly serving the role of lead vocalist, and while that’s not a bad thing in itself given that he’s a strong enough singer, it greatly mitigates the breadth of vocal techniques and identities that contributed to some of the boyish charm of past albums. But that’s clearly not a priority anymore, and when alongside some pretty stock relationship lyrics, it’s hard to pick out much of anything in terms of a vocal presence. Again, Teeth is the best example here given that it conveys tension and fracturing with some necessary punch, and for a similar qualitative comparison, there’s a nice swell of romantic sentiment when it comes to Wildflower. Otherwise, Thin White Lies and Lover Of Mine just come across as more syrupy versions of both respectively, and Old Me and Best Years are about as flavourless as pop songwriting comes in terms of some very safe, coddled tropes. It’s all extremely generic, and when the only real questionable lyrical turn comes at the very end with High (which, honestly, doesn’t even do provocation that well), it’s a fitting encompassment of the dreariness and edgelessness that 5 Seconds Of Summer have been worn down by.
It makes it hard to believe there’s any hope left for 5 Seconds Of Summer at this stage. They’ve regularly been something of a punching bag for a good amount of rock fans, but there used to be some merit to them to which that could largely be deemed unfair; now though, when they’ve all but shed any good will they once had and stand as a pale husk of themselves, there’s not much room to go back anymore. CALM doesn’t so much feel like a reinvention as it does a death knell, especially with how blatant so many changes for the worse are, and beyond the odd moment of intrigue, there’s nothing here that can even be remotely gravitated towards. It’s the latest in a string of instances where 5 Seconds Of Summer have been unnecessarily chopping themselves down, and when there’s barely anything left this time around, it might be most useful to just call it a day sooner rather than later.
For fans of: Maroon 5, Jonas Brothers, The Vamps
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘CALM’ by 5 Seconds Of Summer is out now on Interscope Records.