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Say Anything, ‘Anarchy, My Dear” (Equal Vision)

SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: March 13, 2012
Label: Equal Vision

Toward the conclusion of Say Anything’s fifth album, Anarchy, My Dear, there’s a burst of multi-tracked-to-heaven guitars that gradually swells grandly with digitally delayed classic-rock aplomb, and then slowly fades out, ending the record on a not-completely-earned note of graceful triumph. It’s totally the type of thing Smashing Pumpkins used to do, which seems appropriate, given the circumstances Say Anything find themselves in.

Frontman Max Bemis has a bit of a Last Man Standing thing going on nowadays. His band sorta blew up in 2004 with the incredibly grandiose emo-rock opera …Is a Real Boy, and Bemis doubled down on his chosen milieu three years later with an equally grandiose if far more scattershot double-album titled In Defense of the Genre. This defense was ultimately unsuccessful. For much of the aughts, emo enjoyed a stranglehold on America’s sensitive (and self-absorbed) kids. But since that decade ended, most of Bemis’ compatriots either have quietly retired (Thursday, Thrice); torn themselves apart (Fall Out Boy); ditched the genre after realizing it didn’t really fit them (My Chemical Romance, Paramore); or worked very hard to become the Jeff Mangum of the mall (Brand New).

Billy Corgan found himself in a similar situation around a decade ago. After most of his ’90s alt-rock peers either had broken up or retreated from the spotlight, Smashing Pumpkins released an album designed to wantonly overemphasize everything people loved and hated about him. But 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God buried some great songs in overbearing production and a Byzantine plotline that mainly served as an excuse to attack our fallen hero’s many detractors. The band broke up shortly thereafter, later reconvening with a comically rotating lineup and lots of complaints from Corgan about feeling unappreciated.

Bemis has plenty of that defiance in his make-up. There’s the double-album thing, and he too favors a more-is-more production aesthetic and seemingly has never done a second draft of a lyric in his life. After a few albums on RCA-affiliated labels, which were remarkably patient with Bemis’ flights of fancy, Say Anything is now aligned with the Albany hardcore-punk label Equal Vision. Anarchy, My Dear is his Machina. But instead of a song cycle about a rock star gone mad or whatever (never really cracked the code on that one), we get an album — and I wish I didn’t have to type this next phrase, but I really have no choice here — with an underlying theme about hipsters. Sigh.

Basically a Brooklyn Vegan comments section put to music, “Admit It Again” is a strong contender for Worst Song of the Year, though it does admittedly have a lovely acoustic coda. For this sequel to “Admit It,” Real Boy‘s equally histrionically aggrieved closing number, Bemis goes in on a cool-kid straw man (“Defining your own self-worth by the opinion of a stupid website / With Satan as its figurehead”), but can’t come up with any insight beyond the remarkably fresh idea that the indie-rock scene is filled with insecure poseurs. Oh, and too many people are too cool to admit that they ever liked his band, which seems to be the real issue here.

To Bemis’ credit, being abandoned by his peers only seems to have emboldened him. He never sounds less than fully committed throughout Anarchy; you can all but hear the spittle hit the microphone in his rantiest moments. The problem is that the rantier he gets about poseurs, the more he forgets to write hooks for his invectives, which strive for Real Boy‘s Broadway-punk propulsive grace, but strain under the weight of unsingable lines like, “You’ve forfeited your dubious ‘anti-cred’ / By buying into your own inflated hype.” Also, Bemis’ tendency to abruptly shift from full-speed pop-punk to a showtunes-like waltz gets less impressive each successive time.

No one is arguing that stupid haircuts and trend-jacking don’t deserve a public drubbing, but Anarchy proposes that not buying into the Blog Hype of the Moment makes him some sort of maverick. Corgan, who just this week at SXSW went on a rant about the kids these days (a.k.a., “prostitutes and poseurs”), likely would co-sign that sentiment, which is not a good sign. Alas, all the supposed truth-to-power posturing on (representative song title: “Sheep”; representative lyrics: “It’s hard to watch you whore out your damaged pride / I spit on what you’re building”) just gets embarrassing and mucks up what might be an otherwise fine set of songs.

Of course, Bemis is seemingly immune to embarrassment, which is often one of his virtues, and leads to the record’s most redeeming moments. “Overbiter” and “So Good” are unapologetically sweet odes to his wife, which nod, unexpectedly, to Annie Lennox and OMD, and will probably get his band booed offstage at the next Warped Tour. Elsewhere, “Burn a Miracle” and “Of Steel” make Say Anything sound more like a muscular, power-chord-happy full band and less like the cut-and-paste studio project of Bemis’ last few albums, perhaps courtesy of returning Real Boy producer Tim O’Heir, whose (relatively) restrained approach helps these songs shine without dosing them in too much sanitizing rock-radio gloss.

Emo’s main appeal was that is was never supposed to be cool. It provided a safe place for fans and musicians to express themselves without fear of looking corny, which explains why the genre was pretty much intolerable to anyone not already in the fold. Bemis became a prince in this realm thanks to his indifference and fearlessness; his lyrics are uncomfortably compelling, Herculean feats of self-laceration that most sane songwriters would never think to attempt. (On Real Boy standout “Every Man Has a Molly, ” one of the most morally irresponsible/deeply satisfying rock songs of the past decade, Bemis promises to kill himself to punish an ex, whose full name he uses as a reoccurring hook.) On “Of Steel,” Anarchy‘s highlight, Bemis takes stock of his own insecurity and arrogance, but in a way that shows he’s finally gaining some insight into his own neurosis. (“Nice to meetcha / I’m cliché! / I have this baggage, but can you save me?”) For the first time, he sounds like he might cut himself a break for his failings. Would that he could be so generous to everyone else.