As far as easy targets go, Simple Plan are up there with the literal broadside of a barn. They come from an era in pop-punk where hating your parents and your hometown was the done thing, and have never really grown out of that mindset in the decade-plus that’s followed. It’s made them easy to be dubbed as childish or cringeworthy, which are fair assessments a lot of the time, but they probably get over-hated a bit much too, in all honesty. In a time like now where the poppier end of rock is fixated on performative edginess, having a more straight-laced palette-cleanser like Simple Plan is a welcome reprieve, even if they’re probably past the point of meaningful evolution at this stage. There’s a lower expected bar of quality to them overall, which is unquestionably backhanded, but it means they can get away with a lack of real adventurousness or depth if the songs are at least catchy enough. There’s enough to criticise in that mindset in itself, sure, but at the end of the day, Simple Plan are going to be treated as a punching bag regardless, and giving them a slight leg up for succeeding in exactly what they set out to do isn’t hurting anyone.
And yes, that’s effectively giving Harder Than It Looks a participation trophy and calling it a win, something which probably isn’t all that warranted. This is another Simple Plan album, not a hair out of place and not a surprise to be found, and thus it’s fairly in-keeping with where the pre-existing needle will likely land. It’s, as usual, the writing that gives it the biggest knock in how there’s still no real evidence of a band ageing up, which can make a song like Two from the perspective of a child of divorced parents ring as a bit regressive coming from 42-year-old Pierre Bouvier. It’s similar with the clapbacks towards exes on Ruin My Life and Congratulations, though there isn’t as much mean-spiritedness to them as would otherwise be very possible in the genre. It’s probably the main benefit of Simple Plan’s broad, blanket writing style where they can plough through some of pop-punk’s more notoriously dicey alleyways, albeit without giving an older perspective that would be sensible and valued. It’s why songs like Million Pictures Of You and Slow Motion sit far more comfortably, as the starry-eyed love songs that are more widely wholesome, and that a frontman as generally affable as Bouvier can sell a lot more effectively.
After all, a band like Simple Plan are ‘punk’ nominally more than anything, and are better at the bouncier, polished material than anything even approaching harshness. They’re definitely wise to stick with it then, though the gleaming pianos and touches of a new wave glow on Million Pictures Of You and Slow Motion definitely work in their favour (much more so than the clumsy attempt of watered-down reggae on Anxiety, anyway). For the most part, it’s all business as usual—big, bounding guitars free of blemishes or surface imperfections, and shooting for heights of anthemia that, for a band this deep in their career, feels very authentic still. It’s where the omnipresent focus on catchiness carries the bulk of the weight, across the brooding, mid-paced sweep of Wake Me Up (When This Nightmare’s Over) or the horn-backed sizzle of Iconic. The hooks do connect at that, and the broad strokes paint the scene about as well as they usually do. Not a gleaming appraisal by any means, but one that highlights Simple Plan’s consistency, the very thing that simultaneously keeps them afloat and anchors them down. This is the standard they’ve set for themselves basically since the beginning, which is fine for the exact sort of music they make, but never sets out evolution as even a prospect to be entertained. The word ‘regressive’ was used earlier, but it’s more a case of Simple Plan remaining locked in place from where they began, a place where so many of the rampant criticisms towards them have their roots and have stuck with them ever since.
And it isn’t like they aren’t justified; Simple Plan are in their third decade as a band and certainly don’t make music to reflect that, not helped by how said music can come with inherent preconceptions of juvenility that haven’t come close to being shaken off. But in the same way that Bowling For Soup continue to have charm, Simple Plan’s blend of approachability and an ear for a strong melody and chorus is what ultimately works for them. Harder Than It Looks hits a lot of the same appeal centres because of that, where being bright and breezy is used to its advantage, and where the clear lack of jaded or cynical machinations are rather uncommon for this generation of pop-punk. That’s at least worth something, even if Simple Plan aren’t blazing a trail they never were to begin with, or innovating in a way that’s never been expected of them. To immediately put it down for just being another Simple Plan album is probably missing the point; those exact reasons are also where its greatest strengths can be found.
For fans of: Good Charlotte, Bowling For Soup, blink-182
‘Harder Than It Looks’ by Simple Plan is released on 6th May.
Words by Luke Nuttall