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fun., ‘Some Nights’ (Fueled by Ramen)

fun. /
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 21, 2012
Label: Fueled by Ramen

The redemptive power of rock and roll is essential to the genre’s mystique: It saves lives, it sets nights on fire, so on and so forth. The second album from the New York City-based trio fun. stretches that hypothesis to its breaking point: Lyrically, Some Nights touches on loneliness, apathy, and the feeling of being stuck. But this record isn’t a glum, inwardly focused slog; instead, it sounds like the moment when a person in pain decides to get over his damn self and get out of the house, finding redemption in whatever songs happen to be playing while he’s pulling on a pair of jeans.

And so “We Are Young,” the album’s Hot 100-leaping lead single, marries fist-pump stadium rock to the prim indie-pop of Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks,” keeping the deliberate beats and soaring melodies but replacing choirboy primness with a percussive whomp. And voila: Your song is trumping Madonna’s return to the pop charts and you didn’t even have to get somebody to flip the bird during the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

“Young” is one of those songs so obviously made for mass consumption that it’s hard to believe something similar hasn’t already emerged from the bowels of Dr. Luke’s hit factory: The chorus’ exhortation to “set the world on fire” (see?) because “We can burn brighter / Than the sun” is the sort of inspirational message tailor-made for Facebook wall posts between friends trying to cheer each other up; and the way frontman Nate Ruess’ voice swoops triumphantly upward gives the words that much extra oomph. (The tonal shift between the seize-the-day chorus and the verses, which paint a bleak portrait of a night out that reads like Trees Lounge directed by Last Night’s Party, doesn’t exactly hurt matters, either.)

Ruess — formerly of the 2000s cult-pop act the Format — and his bandmates have an omnivorous approach to pop music, and the dizzying array of RIYLs scattered throughout Some Nights is a testament to that appetite. Queen is an obvious antecedent; Ruess’ voice has Freddie Mercury’s muscle and range, while the album’s prelude is packed with so much pomp it makes one wonder if the words “at the Opera” had been chopped off the album’s title at the last minute. But that’s just the start. There are snatches of Elton John (the beleaguered “Why Am I the One”); Sleigh Bells (the towering, thrilling “One Foot” and the do-the-robot opening-to-the-car-with-the-windows-down anthem “It Gets Better”); and Springsteen, in his shanty-leaning guise (“Carry On,” where Ruess takes the torch of the It Gets Better movement and channels his pain into leading the downtrodden).

Fun.’s willingness to sample from all of the pop’s buffet offerings isn’t always easy on the ears, though: A good chunk of the album is drenched in the obvious sort of vocal processing favored by T-Pain and 808s and Heartbreak-era Kanye West, which grates at times, though artistically, it does makes sense. “Stars,” for instance, segues from an upbeat, handclap-propelled homage to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” into a long coda of hot-tar guitar licks trading off with Ruess’ increasingly distorted voice as he sings of his life’s romantic void. Gradually, the vocals even contort into an electronically altered choir singing, “You’re always holding on to stars,” over and over, as the syllables stretch and warp until the song eventually drops out. It’s an extended bit of despondency that brings to mind the fade-out of West’s similarly bleak “Runaway” — probably not an accident, since that song’s producer, Jeff Bhasker, worked on the track. (He also helped co-write “We Are Young.”)

On 808s, West’s use of vocal distortion felt like a hedge, a way for him to bare himself lyrically while allowing a part of him to remain covered up. Fun.’s use of it on Some Nights — which, at times, seems to chronicle nights that are long, dark, and of the soul — works in the exact opposite way. “One Foot” is stadium rock for the year 2212, its synth-oompah dragging Ruess along as he wallows in anomie, anxiety, and a desperate need for “a better place to die.” It’s only when he berates himself for being too old to be so full of angst that the song drops the vocal processing and lets him “get real.” Some Nights, with its combination of record-collector bravado and lyrical vulnerability, is a study in that sort of contrast: Its slightly peculiar over-reliance on technology only makes it more human, more lovable, and more rock and roll.