You could fill years of academic journals with research about popular music and mental illness. The chemical balances that lend themselves to musical mastery will surely never be uncovered, nor will we ever understand the tendency of artistic geniuses to commit themselves to bizarre or self-destructive behaviors (or, in some cases, both).
But what happens if things get better? What if you’re able to quell your demons and triumph over adversity – does the music get better, or does the muse go away? This is the strange question posed after spinning several times through Anarchy, My Dear, the fifth album by L.A.-based indie-punk outfit Say Anything.
Max Bemis, the band’s 27-year-old frontman, songwriter and unequivocal leader, is no stranger to the intersection of musical talent and mental trouble. The band’s sophomore album, 2004’s …is a Real Boy, was a triumph of its time, deftly mixing catchy, hard-edged hooks with heartfelt and humorous lyrical commentary. Bemis’ words were from a man on the edge; he suffered a mental breakdown during the making of the album.
Eight years later, Bemis and band have reunited with Real Boy producer Tim O’Heir for Anarchy, My Dear, and clearly have the past in mind. Nowhere is this more evident than “Admit It Again,” a retread of Real Boy‘s notable closing track “Admit It!!!”, in which Bemis urgently took a subculture of hipsters and poseurs to task for their behavior over a rollicking track. But what worked in 2004 for a 20-year-old with a brilliant mind clouded by issues works significantly less as a fitter, happier 27-year-old with a loving wife (Eisley’s Sherri Dupree). Much of “Admit It Again” – and, regrettably, the first half of the album – comes off as dissonant and bilious, and not in a good, get-the-negative-vibes-out-by-yelling way. Listening to tracks like lead single “Burn a Miracle” and “Say Anything” are, like vintage Say Anything, glimpses into Bemis’ soul – but instead of empathy, you feel like Bemis should clam up if he can’t find anything nice (or less verbose) to say.
The second half of the album improves things somewhat, as Bemis reins in his more nonsensical loud verbal juggling and leads the band through tunes that more properly recall the band’s tendencies for semi-catchy melodies. But it’s not sequencing that ultimately does the album in; it’s the uncertainty over Bemis’ psycho-musical direction. He was at his best musically when he was at his worst personally – one hopes he doesn’t need to be low all the time to regain his band’s footing. This writer remains confident that Bemis and Say Anything will craft something great from their frontman’s sunnier days, but it’s uncertain Anarchy, My Dear is yet where they need to be.