You don’t need it reiterating how much of a scorching-hot commodity nostalgia is in pop-rock. It always has been, especially now that the 2000s generation is phasing into the cycle of reevaluation and “Band With One Song From 20 Years Ago That You Remember A Bit is kinda okay, actually” is all the discourse that’s really needed. But it’s also enough to give them their second winds, or relaunch a stagnant career that lives and dies on how much said cycle can be juiced and gamed for all it’s worth. This is still an industry, remember; supply and demand exists, regardless of how unstable the ground it’s erected on is.
And then there’s the case of the Plain White T’s, a band who’ve actually never gone away, but who also owe every millisecond of longevity they’ve got to a number of songs, of which calling them a ‘handful’ might be overly generous. Sure, Our Time Now and Rhythm Of Love are recognisable enough (they played the former on iCarly one time, remember?), but they also pale in comparison to Hey There Delilah, the mega-smash that likely paid off these guys’ mortgages multiple times over all on its own. To this day, there’s not a wedding playlist or fluttery, lovestruck scenario that wouldn’t fit this song, and you do kind of get why. The background of its creation might be more sus than it’s letting on, but as a stripped-back, earnest, unfalteringly human love song, you can understand why it’s resonated. It also sounds nothing like the Plain White T’s’ other stuff in 2005, which is likely why it sits so highly in comparison. This is a textbook one-hit wonder, irrepressible enough to keep its creators swilling around in the brain-soup, but not to where you have to care about what they’d do after it.
Case in point: this album. Did you know this was coming? Do you care? The answer to both is probably ‘no’, but it does present an interesting notion about the Plain White T’s and where they believe their place in music is in 2023. The conclusion drawn is exceptionally fitting for a band who’ve survived through no natural means whatsoever—the Plain White T’s have no clue what anyone liked about them in the first place. This new album is still as milquetoast as anything, but it doesn’t carry it with a sincerity, or a joy. Instead, it couldn’t feel like more of a flippant chore if it tried. And while that’s hardly a monumental development for a band who last sniffed relevance in 2010, you have to wonder what the point is when there’s blatantly no effort to reclaim anything of value. This isn’t going to usurp the culture shockwaves of their big hit, or usher in a new spate of significance, not by a long shot. It’s just…nothing.
The point stands that, even if this were an entire album of recreated Hey There Delilahs (which, in some instances, appears is what it’s trying to be), the fundamentally terrible decisions all the way down throw in a multitude of wrenches that become impossible to dislodge. Most obviously, the thing just sounds like crap. You get that from the very first song Young Tonight, where the bass and drums lurch and lumber awkwardly over weedy, airless acoustics, before the kind of chorus drop that suffocated alt-pop in the mid-2010s and wasn’t even tolerable then. It’s a plainly awful production style that this album is afflicted by, uneven in the precise wrong ways that leaves songs like Fired Up and Red Flags as sterilised and torturously immobile. There’s also Tom Higginson as a vocalist to add on to the incompetence, as his frequent voice cracks and generally simpering demeanour aren’t ‘charming’ or ‘homespun’. He sounds like he can’t be bothered, opting to compensate for a fatal dearth of power by overlaying both himself and the percussion above everything else.
That in itself is just awful, but it congeals into an even shittier concoction with the primary acoustics to lead, not only finding themselves with barely the space to breathe, but also failing to slough off some of their more embarrassingly cloying affectations. It doesn’t take a genius to see where the Plain White T’s are going with this, so let’s just cut the legs off nice and early—yes, Hey There Delilah was also cloying, but it was also rich and well-balanced, and had the benefit of big, swelling youth behind it. The Plain White T’s nowadays, on the other hand, are nearly 20 years removed from that. They’re markedly worse in every department.
There’s no good reason for that either, other than the Plain White T’s going on for this long seemingly unchecked, and thus having little idea of what flies anymore. This doesn’t even feel profit-driven anymore; no act worth their salt, no matter how poppy, is stringing themselves to the kind of elementary sentimentality present on L-O-V-E or Girl From Pasadena. They’d be laughed out of polite company if they were, though the likelihood of the Plain White T’s not having that isn’t lost either. They’re hardly a benchmark to match up to, especially now as they dribble out maudlin platitudes with nothing keeping them up. Higginson isn’t close to being talented enough to sell these as ‘real’, and thus, the entire album winds up feeling like wasted space. For God’s sake, Young Tonight’s hook of “We’re gonna get old but we’re young tonight” is the kind of line you’d come up with a parody of this sort of thing; it’s got no flair or momentum or creative impetus behind it, and winds up exactly as flaccid as the 12 other songs to follow.
So what’s the point of any of this, then? Good question, and one that certainly won’t be answered by the Plain White T’s themselves. It’s already a wonder they’ve still got Fearless backing them, especially when their label debut Parallel Universes in 2018 wasn’t any good either, but any self-respecting label would be mortified to have this go out on their roster. Especially in 2023 where creativity in alternative spaces—even in pop-rock—is at such a notable high, the Plain White T’s coasting just isn’t excusable. There’s no reason this needs to exist, when it’s so openly lazy and devoid of even the semblance of an idea. Even when they’ve been running on fumes practically for the whole of their post-Hey There Delilah lifespan, being this open about the fact doesn’t endear you to anyone. If anything, it makes it a hell of a lot clearer why people stopped paying attention.
For fans of: McFly, Dashboard Confessional, Mayday Parade
‘Plain White T’s’ by Plain White T’s is released on 17th November on Fearless Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall