For a band that were once primed to take position among the newest genre figureheads of pop-punk, it really doesnt feel like anyone is too bothered about Neck Deep anymore. That could certainly be a consequence of pop-punk as a whole currently being in its latest fallow period, but even going as far back as 2017 and the release of The Peace And The Panic, the commotion around Neck Deep has severely died down compared to what it once was. Particularly when put next to their previous effort Life’s Not Out To Get You, The Peace And The Panic wasn’t able to hold its momentum nearly as well; it was a good album and had the expected nova-burst of anticipation in the window surrounding its release, but for a band like this who are used to more, that cycle just didn’t grip in the same way, and honestly felt exactly the same as just another album from any one of countless bands. And while that’s not immediate grounds for concern – bands can have poor album cycles and recover from them in the end – it’s led to an interesting reconsideration of where Neck Deep actually stand within their genre. They’re doubtlessly one of the genre’s most successful modern properties, but any initial proclamations of a legacy that stack up with the blink-182s and New Found Glorys of the scene feel more than a bit premature at this point. And that ultimately leads to All Distortions Are Intentional, an album whose run-up has been overwhelmingly lukewarm and indicative of just how severe and permanent the dip for Neck Deep could be. Had this been the release to come from another resounding success, none of this would even be a factor for discussion, but the shadow currently hanging over this album is probably as long as it could be, and it’s frankly amazing to see how much that and that alone has dampened the excitement.
As such, it feels like Neck Deep have tried to combat that somewhat with a different kind of album in All Distortions Are Intentional. It’s simpler and less high-octane while trying to retain as much of the core Neck Deep appeal as it can, and if that sounds as though it doesn’t quite click, there’s the main problem highlighted already. It’s not a bad album – at this stage, Neck Deep are too big to come out with an outright dud – but the spark and exuberance that characterised their last couple of releases feel like less important factors this time, and that certainly has an effect when the album as a whole has less of an immediate reaction. Even with a better album ultimately hidden within it, All Distortions Are Intentional probably makes the fewest concessions yet to letting that shine, and while that doesn’t totally hold it up or anything, it’s not a route that feels entirely successful for Neck Deep to take, especially when compared to how well they’ve done in the past.
It’s rather easy to zero in on where that has the greatest impact too, and that’s in the changes made to the sound and production. Compared to how sharp and razor-tight Neck Deep’s mixes have often been, All Distortions Are Intentional is quite a bit different, favouring bigger canvases that aren’t as tightly packed, and now with instrumentation that’s got a pop-rock fuzziness and a clearer presence of rustling acoustic guitars within it. It certainly sounds bigger in scope, but it also loses a lot of the potency that Neck Deep had cultivated from being so focused in the past. It says a lot that tracks like When You Know and I Revolve (Around You) work the most here; they fall more closely to the band’s more recognisable pop-punk side in terms of production tightness without forgoing the more freewheeling tempos that comprise so much of this album. Otherwise though, there’s just something about the whole thing that struggles to click, almost as if the flabbiness that Neck Deep have always been so proficient at cutting back hasn’t been disposed of with the same attention here. As such, it leaves a track like Lowlife with more of a compressed, grinding crunch that relies on volume above all else, or an oddly perfunctory quality to the glorified interlude Quarry and the twinkly acoustics of Little Dove that lack a lot of drive and focus. On a track-by-track basis, All Distortions Are Intentional might have the most uneven selection of songs on a Neck Deep album to date; even in its moments of quality, there’s a certain amount of succumbing to the bigger sound that eases back on the accuracy that Neck Deep once had in spades, now for a blunter and less pervasive hit.
Having said all of that though, it’d be wrong to suggest that Neck Deep don’t still have the keenest of ears for hooks, and one benefit of opening their sound out for an album like this is having the freedom to supercharge what was already their best asset and keep it going on an arena-sized level. When You Know is the easy highlight, the towering mid-tempo ballad with the gold-plated chorus that absolutely nothing else on her comes close to touching, but in the swooping vocal runs of Fall, the quicker sugar-rush of Telling Stories and the grottier, more tense stylings of Sick Joke, there’s a nice touch of diversity that the band make good use of. The relative dip in the second half doesn’t help in terms of overall momentum (and really only serves to justify the aforementioned unevenness further), but their characteristic strength hasn’t completely gone, and it does make for a number of really solid moments here. However, there’s also that caveat that, perhaps apart from When You Know, it’s hard to rank them among the absolute best of Neck Deep’s canon, and that can make All Distortions Are Intentional feel a bit lesser once again; it’s a new sound that hasn’t crystallised as strongly yet, and the overall results do turn out more hit-or-miss than Neck Deep are arguably used to.
Thus, it’s probably best that the narrative of this album is a bit more simplistic and fitting with the overall broadness that’s being strived for, and it’s arguably the most consistent strength that All Distortions Are Intentional has. It might be a bit backhanded to suggest that’s because it’s not aiming to do all that much, but that’s also where that appeal lies, with the narrator beginning as a burned-out waster with nothing going for him before meeting the love of his life and discovering some real self-worth along the way. It helps that there’s a good amount of unreliability in the narration too; the limerance is so blinding on Lowlife and I Revolve (Around You) that it could border on parody on its own, but when placed with a sense of disillusionment towards everything that’s heightened to similarly astronomical levels on Sonderland and Pushing Daisies, it’s a lot more rooted in character than real-life portrayals, and that can lend a bit of credence to the more cartoonish vibe this album sometimes has going for it. It’s generally a lot lighter than Neck Deep go, particularly off the back of The Peace And The Panic, and that in itself is hard to outright dislike, even if the album itself isn’t the best representation of what this all could be.
It’s what makes All Distortions Are Intentional hard to dislike, even if its rather glaring flaws can absolutely be acknowledged. There’s an inherent likability to Neck Deep’s material that hasn’t gone away, but it’s certainly been minimised to make room for a change in sound that doesn’t feel like the best direction for them to take overall. It’s nowhere near as kinetic or propulsive, and as such, it lacks a lot of the immediate gripping force that their past couple of albums brought without hesitation. Maybe it can be called transitional, but it’s honestly a bit difficult to see how they could take something like this forward without changing it so fundamentally that it’s almost unrecognisable. That’s certainly going to be interesting to see moving forward, as well as what this current cycle is going to make of what Neck Deep have done here. Considering how things turned out last time, literally anything could happen.
For fans of: Boston Manor, Knuckle Puck, New Found Glory
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘All Distortions Are Intentional’ by Neck Deep is released on 24th July on Hopeless Records.