As it turns out, we didn’t really need to be too upset about the untimely disbanding of The Format.
Yes, that band was a revelation, a subversive, witty act that masked some seriously soul-crushing lyrical content with shimmering, sun-kissed pop melodies; 2006’s Dog Problems remains one of the decade’s unsung classics, a stunning breakup record that revisits the old Elvis Costello bait-n’-switch with some of the most deceptively effervescent hooks ever caught on wax obscuring the insecure, acerbic, bitter lyrical remains of a toxic relationship, as if Adele had eviscerated that scummy ex of hers with some harmonic Brian Wilson beach-blanket-pop instead of with torchy ballads and stomping blues. The Format’s dissolution left a gaping hole in the Fueled By Ramen-esque subgenre they were often shoehorned into; everyone else was either too earnest or too detached. Nobody was hitting the power-pop sweet spot anymore.
But we didn’t really need to be upset about that. As it turns out, Nate Ruess, Format singer and songwriter and general pop mastermind, drags his enormous sack of ideas and melodies and talent wherever he goes. The resulting project–heretofore referred to as Fun, sans improper capitalization and superfluous punctuation–dropped their debut, Aim & Ignite, two years ago, but it’s Some Nights, buoyed by the success of the “Glee”, Honda Civic, and Janelle Monae-approved “We Are Young”, that seems poised to perch Ruess and his brand of melodic, classically-bent pop music on the fringes of the mainstream.
And, well, it’s about time. Inevitably, “We Are Young”–perhaps the first time we’ve heard Nate Ruess’ voice on the radio since The Format scored a minor hit with “Cause A Scene”–will suffer from saturation, but it remains an arresting and engaging torch song for the defiantly youthful, one that will stand heartache-to-heartache with Pat Benatar’s rockier-but-no-less-galvanizing “Love is a Battlefield” until we’re tired of hearing it used to shill midsize sedans and shut it off for the next two years or so. And when that happens, the remainder of Some Nights will still be a beautiful Frankenstein’s monster of pop music, an unflappably catchy album that collects disparate influences and stray elements and stitches them together into a glorious patchwork of ebullient verses and hooks.
The album’s intro echoes the baroque, state-of-the-union chamber-pop that opened Dog Problems, shot through with a potent vein of vintage Queen, chorales of multi-tracked voices straight outta “Somebody To Love” serving as Greek chorus and inner monologue alike; Ruess’ narrator, out of place in the increasingly foreign pop landscape, seethes about “Tea Parties and Twitter” with barely suppressed spite, before building to a grand Broadway finale in the span of a scant two minutes and change. “Some Nights” welds that Night At the Opera pomp to a sharp, percussive inversion of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia”, rising and falling and rising again in rapid succession. It’s a remarkably incisive gimmick: the Fun of Some Nights creates music contingent on dynamics, creating a breathless push-and-pull with the listener, littering the landscape with flourishes of bombast and stabs of the instantly-familiar.
Fun’s got new tricks up their sleeve, too: sure, they return to the Aim & Ignite well for the stellar, Britpop-aping “Why Am I the One”, but they’ve spiced up the recipe with cautiously-deployed Autotune–like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon or Imogen Heap, Ruess is a strong enough vocalist that his vocals don’t need heavy processing, so he applies the technique sparingly and with atmosphere and dynamics firmly in mind–and a small fistful of hip-hop beats that re-route the formula considerably. The back half of Some Nights crackles with bittersweet pop nuggets stapled onto crackling, loping De La Soul instrumentals; if that sounds on paper like the sort of thing that we hypocritically crucify OneRepublic for, note that these are expertly executed pop songs with memorable, surprising melodies, and not sub-Fray pablum tarted up with diverting production.
It’s interesting to see a band’s metamorphosis before your very eyes; over the course of Some Nights‘ ten proper tracks, Fun starts as the band that we loved on Aim & Ignite, full of vigor and pomp and tipping the hat to pop maestros of yore, and slowly takes flight as old hands applying their craft to the new model. By the time “Stars” crests with a processed chorus of Ruesses fading into the robotic ether, Kanye-in-“Runaway”-style, over a stark canned-drum track, the implication is that Fun have finally gotten with the times. If that finds you cocking your head to one side and proclaiming “but the times totally SUCK!”, I fear you’re missing the point. The point is that there are bands like LMFAO and OneRepublic, and then there are bands like Fun; the point isn’t whether modern pop techniques are employed or not, the point is that Fun’s songs stand victorious, regardless of the mode of delivery. If you’ve loved Nate Ruess’ music in the past, there’s a chance that you’ll begin Some Nights with a goofy ear-to-ear grin and end it with a horrified grimace–music fans are notoriously averse to change–but the open-minded listener will be able to uncork Some Nights‘ singular magic, and connect with what is, at its core, a streamlined, laser-sighted record designed to massage every pleasure center in the pop music aficionado’s brain. Either way, Some Nights boasts something for everyone, and then a little extra.
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