There’s a certain amount of re-evaluation that needs to be offered to AJR, if only to fully isolate where they fall in modern music. That’s largely because, outside of dedicated online circles where their presence has been amplified exponentionally along with the criticism that’s subsequently reaped, they really aren’t a big deal. In terms of shallow, plastic indie-pop that thinks it’s way smarter than it actually is, AJR are a negligible drop in the ocean, to the point where – even if only for a second – you might start to wonder if the concentrated volume of all the hate is worth it. After all, bad albums come around all the time, and while both The Click and Neotheater were, without question, bad albums, they haven’t really been harmful or indicative of a sea change for the worst that they themselves have spurred on. But to leave it at that would ultimately be disingenuous, and ignoring the blatantly opportunistic streak that’s always coloured AJR’s material is probably giving them more credit than they really deserve. They’ve always been more than happy to tap into the indie aesthetic and pretensions towards saying something meaningful without following through even reasonably well, and right now, at a time when Gen Z irony is driven by the online presence that basically encompasses the entirely of the myth-making around this band, the potential to really bottom out is being handed to them on a silver platter. The fact that Bang! has become a genuine hit for them is a worrying start, but then there’s the cheapness and fashionable distance kept from real depth that’s always been endemic for AJR that has essentially been validated within modern music, which creates a real sinking feeling for OK Orchestra. It probably wasn’t going to be all that good to start with, but unfortunately, AJR have a much clearer idea of what they can get away with now.
That could’ve all applied here, except OK Orchestra is very uncharacteristic of that standard that AJR have set for themselves, in that this is, by a country mile, their most measured and coherently enjoyable album to date. Now again, that’s on the basis of their past material, which doesn’t say too much; not all of the screamingly obvious weaknesses that have run rampant across AJR’s output have been rectified here, and as can be expected, OK Orchestra feels the brunt of that hit as a result. This isn’t an entire face-turn or anything, but in terms of concentrated moments of quality, there’s more to be found here than all across their previous albums, perhaps put together. It’s mildly shocking to be able to say that, but credit where it’s due – this feels like a significant upgrade in terms of what AJR are capable of, and while it still isn’t all that good, that needs to be taken into account.
What hasn’t changed much, though, is the sound, where the consistency – or lack thereof – still rests of very thin, chintzy collages of genre somewhat assembled together to create the veneer of indie-pop. Right from the beginning with OK Overture, in which various parts of succeeding tracks are clunked together with the uniformity of a young child’s Lego model, AJR continue to exercise the sort of mercenary creative mindset that, combined with production that scrubs away any bass or low end, feels unmistakably tacky throughout. The fluttery Disney strings on The Trick might sound solid, but they’re also paired with a shivering, pitched-up vocal that’s hard to take even remotely seriously; meanwhile there’s the beatboxing over compressed pianos on Joe, the whirring, mechanical crank of Bang!, and the cardboard horns and overpowering drums from the Blue Man Group on Ordinaryish People that are the sort of poor creative decisions that a group of this size should definitely be dissuaded from embracing. Even in the most agreeable musical moments like 3 O’Clock Things that hold firm to one central musical idea, the production still manages to kill it in how flimsy it sounds. That’s always been an issue for AJR since the very beginning, and the closest they’ve come to rectifying it on here is somewhat streamlining their sound to be marginally – and it is unbelievably marginally – less obnoxious. Jack Met’s vocals still have a put-on theatricality but the spikes of outright grating performance have been toned back, and for the mounds of poor decisions they keep piling onto their songs for no adequate reason, OK Orchestra at least holds back from being as outright excruciating as some of their other works have been, and that’s appreciated. But in the way that this is the ‘best’ AJR album overall, the sonic improvements of OK Orchestra are incredibly relative; it’s less irritating to sit through, but no more worthy of endorsement, which only makes the thinness and cheapness of it all sit even less well.
Believe it or not though, it’s actually in the writing where AJR make their biggest step up, though given their track record up to now, it’s worth considering how much that appeal is informed by the context in which it’s being released in. We are still in a pandemic overall, where insularity and a reversion back to childhood interests and thought processes have served as a coping mechanism for so many people, but even then, the shift with AJR seems to have been made from ‘childish’ to ‘childlike’, and that is a bigger distinction than it might seem. There’ll still be the cloying reference points of My Play and Humpty Dumpty that make the shades of a Peter Pan complex as unsubtle as they can be, but generally, a lot of Met’s lyrics circle back to how those childhood memories have shaped him as a person for better or worse, and how in a time of such great isolation, they’ll come back to the surface and gnaw away with nothing to distract from them. He’s still fixated on childhood bullies and whether or not they’d think he’s cool now on Joe, and how cliquey and judgemental people can be compared to the relative innocence of just being a kid on Ordinaryish People. There’s not really some big revelation that comes from this – and indeed, Bang! seems to revert back to the snarky, myopic condescension of emotion that could be unbearable on past AJR albums – but the conscious decision to make the effort to be happy on Way Less Sad is a notable one, and on the closer Christmas In June, where Met tries to share that effort with his partner in a healthier work-life balance, it’s probably the most mature than an AJR song has ever felt.
And look, in the grand scheme of music, what OK Orchestra does isn’t much of an advancement; AJR are still a hopelessly flawed band, especially compositionally, and they’ve only just now reached what many would consider the bare minimum of a solid album. But for a band who’ve so profoundly floundered and come out with next to nothing of worth since their debut six years ago, it’s a case of taking what you can get and appreciated it while it’s there. This is as good as AJR have ever been, and probably will ever be, to where their greatness extolled by a bizarrely dedicated fanbase still isn’t close to being realised, but the flashes of quality will stand out regardless, and that does need to be given credit. It’s definitely a surprise, but a modestly pleasant one nonetheless, and if this is the moment where AJR are trying to ingratiate themselves within the mainstream pop space, this is easily the most preferable version of themselves to do it with.
For fans of: fun., Imagine Dragons, Jon Bellion
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘OK Orchestra’ by AJR is out now on Black Butter Records.