Thirty Seconds to Mars, 'This Is War' (RCA)

3
This Is War
Critical Mass
Label: RCA

by Charles Aaron

There's a stunning scene from the storied teen-TV tour de force My So-Called Life in which earnest waif-heroine Angela Chase (Claire Danes), dyslexic rocker-rebel Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), plus their attendant cliques, lock into a protracted, wordless group stare-down. As the edits flick from one expectant face to the next and the music yearningly jangles (alt-rock foot soldiers Buffalo Tom), time ticks ever more slowly and the kids' drab high-school hallway is gradually transformed into a hormone-detonating theater of operations -- it's inevitable, hearts are going to be trampled.When inscrutable Jordan approaches pensive Angela, it's as if his words will determine the fate of the universe. "Can we," he murmurs gravely, "go somewhere?"

It was the '90s pop-culture equivalent of Truman ushering Marshall into the Oval Office in 1945 to discuss deployment of the atomic bomb. Well, at least it was if you were a deeply unhinged, self-absorbed teenager with a wicked crush on Jared Leto. And for the purposes of this review, you still are. No metaphor is too adolescently bombastic for This Is War, the third album by Leto's overheated karaoke crusade, Thirty Seconds to Mars, and the follow-up to 2005's multimillion-selling A Beautiful Lie.

Replaying his role as an inarticulate enigma carrying a colossal, unnamed burden -- even as he reaches his late 30s -- Leto no longer broods; he bellows or breathes heavily. The post-grunge wounds are far from healed. Revenge is a tantrum best thrown in public. And yes, that's an ominous bird of yore cawing on the intro of "Kings and Queens," the thudding arena-emo single that launches U2, My Chemical Romance, and Creed off a foggy cliff. Rumblings of discontent are afoot!

Except it's all a bit creepy. Especially when Leto randomly coos, "I'll fuck you like the Devil," in his guise as Trent Reznor's dorky next-door neighbor on the industrial-goth offering "Stranger in a Strange Land." Maybe he's just referring to certain record-industry functionaries at the band's own label who initiated a now-annulled $30-million breach-of-contract lawsuit, delaying the recording and release of This Is War. Then again, that sort of punky counterproductivity doesn't fit Leto's M.O.

In 2009, the most grandly ambitious rock acts who put in serious work -- U2, Green Day, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Muse, AFI, the Killers -- were clearly at pains to try anything to command the spotlight. Of course, the unemployed public was otherwise distracted, downloading the next intensely transcendent or momentarily devastating or goofily hilarious or delightfully numbing track or clip or viral what-have-you. Why fixate on any one would-be savior/martyr, let alone his multiplatform mission statement? It's too demanding.

In response to this dilemma, Thirty Seconds to Mars double down, hiring veteran alt-rock producer Flood (U2's Achtung Baby, Depeche Mode's Violator, Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral, countless others) to help them aggressively mimic all of the aforementioned bands -- with chanting. Virtually every song features groups of fans or Tibetan monks (!), echoing Leto's messianic drone. "This is a battle song, brothers and sisters; it's time to go to war," he reminds us (yet again) on "Vox Populi," as guitarist Tomo Mili?evi? nips (yet again) at the Edge's pant leg. A rumored collaboration with Jesus' best bud Kanye West on the track "Hurricane" is mercifully absent.

Playing to splintered attention spans, This Is War insistently splices bits of other artists' work into a facile crescendo of mega-angst and ephemeral drama. It's like Girl Talk for the delusionally bummed.

Wanna text your friends during "Search and Destroy" (not a Stooges cover)? No problem. Leto may be invoking nihilistic military imagery, but he makes sure to croon soothingly like the come-hither voice-over for a straight-to-video Twilight knockoff you might watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Or not.

I hope the monks were well compensated.

WATCH: Thirty Seconds to Mars, "Kings and Queens"

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