I take music and punctuation fairly seriously. That I do, that I do. Punctuation-rules-transgressing band and artist stage names make the lives of editors and writers all over the world curl their long, skinny fingers in reflexive agony. It instantly unlocks my vast store of self-loathing. “Oh, me. Why did I choose the hobby of caring about music, if these meanies are going to foul up the beauty of typography and make me ask questions like ‘if a band name is normally not capitalized, but it appears at the beginning of a sentence, when even words like ‘of’ get a chance to be capitalized, then what do I do?’ Indeed, this is the personal hell that Nate Ruess and his cland of funsters (Or is that fun.sters? Oy, here comes the self-loathing again.) plunge me into whenever I look upon their name in my iTunes library
Tabling that discussion (in the American sense) for now, I want to express a certain amount of happy surprise that, for the first time in at least twenty years, I’ve agreed with America’s choice of the number one song in the nation. Let me reassure you that, yes, I am a horrific snob and sonic thrill-junkie who prefers listening to unstructured group improvisation (tap your foot to that irregular time signature, my yops) to the latest genetically-engineered radio sugar. I will be absolutely unapologetic about preferring certain kinds of music to others, and won’t tell you that “of course I think that Lady Gaga is a postmodern genius worthy of my critical attention and energy” just to make you say, “hey, this guy is totally, like, not a smooth poser of a hat-wearing, beard-toting elitist who votes for Liberals and, like, I should date him” (I’m assuming that you’re either a woman or a gay guy and that you have the voice of the Lumpy Space Princess). First of all, I’m not interested in dating right now. I’m married to my work. Second, I need to stop ranting, and I’ll get to the point.
Fun. (writing gods, please let this be the right choice) is a rock band with a number one hit. What’s weird is that that didn’t used to be so amazing. At the tail end of the 90s, we had rock bands with number one hits fairly regularly. I don’t like most of those bands–yes, Radiohead did have a song on a NOW collection, but that was fourteen years ago–and of all the genres of music I avoid, “rock that gets on the charts” is by far the most suspicious and shifty. Only Nickelback and Train and other such detritus are talentless and glossy enough to be bands and still get on Billboard. So, as I navigated to iTunes to listen to the sample for “We Are Young” I had a basic idea of what to expect.
Right off, there were a few positive signs. First, pretty good album artwork that looked more like the jacket of a Vampire Weekend LP than a sludgy late 90s nu-metal disc. Say what you will about Vampire Weekend being toothless and derivative, and they are those things, but they’re production wizards and know how to put together good album artwork with only a few basic elements. Relatively attractive typography, a heavily-edited photograph (or maybe it was taken on vintage film) that smacked of effort and taste, and a kind of unassuming simplicity. Album artwork has a very important place in my music-buying decision-making process (my MUBUDEP, if you will) and there have been quite a few times where I’ve streamed an album online and looked forward to buying it only to stop because the artwork would look atrocious in my iTunes library. Yeasayer, I’m looking right into your dreamy eyes. Ooh. They’re dreamy. But they have a terrible taste in album art. I mean, not all music with a great package is great, but it’s the first warning sign that a band is lazy or has no taste.
Second, I saw that Janelle Monáe was featured. Now, the actual song wastes her talent in the most disappointing way possible, but I’ll get to that later. Janelle Monáe is one of my favorite singers in popular music, a genuine weirdo with a command of melody, production, and grandiose conceptual strategies who makes enthralling genre-hopping pop music and I’ll stop ranting about her now. Needless to say, anyone that Janelle Monáe would work with had to have some talent, aesthetic commonality with her, or both. As it turned out, it’s a bit of both.
Nate Ruess and his band do not come from the “we had a hard time in school too and we speak to the crushed balls and humiliated faces of teenage boys or wannabe teenage boys everywhere” school of rock music. Punk, grunge, metal, and, in a weird way, folk rock, all come from or at least know people from this school. The game they’re trading in is called the Game of Authenticity (TM). In this game, you either tell stories straight from your heart or fabricate them to sound like those stories and sell them as such. You make raw, three-chords-and-the-truth type music that deemphasizes production and, in most cases, talent, to make yourself look sensitive, agressive, or whichever archetypal rock star emotion you’re going for. Fun. is nothing so primal. Nor are they from the BIG SOCIAL STATEMENT OF DUBIOUS VALUE school of rock music. Purveyors of this more respectable and adult style are bands like U2, its evil clones like Coldplay and all 90s and most 2000s CCM bands, and relatively smaller bands like Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene. Fun. is not interested in curing AIDS, though I’m sure they would be as happy as anyone to see that happen, and they aren’t into telling stories about their own failures and life troubles–at least, not without a lot of embellishment and bigness. Fun. comes from yet another school of rock bands, which I christen the Peter Gabriel School, named after its patron saint.
I could also call it the Queen School. What fun. is interested in is being memorable and big, to have their songs arrest your attention and give you a good time but with a varied tone. Though Some Nights features seamlessly glossy production and borrows many sonic cues from hip-hop artist and narcissist extraordinaire Kanye West, it feels much more like a 70s rock album that has been put through an especially aggressive remaster, perhaps by a particularly bored engineer messing with old magnetic tape tracks that he’s digitized and put through Logic Pro. You see, Nate Ruess is what happens when you take a relatively respectable-looking young man, one who wears flannel on stage for crying out loud, and let Freddy Mercury’s ghost have its way with him while he’s performing. Fun., to me, is Queen reborn for this century. Both made enormous songs with stage presence of their own. Both of fun.’s albums begin with heavily orchestrated introduction tracks that let Ruess’ voice dance all over them, reaching for and largely reaching a level of well-crafted drama we rarely hear in pop music. We hear it from these guys, from Janelle Monáe (who is disappointingly underneath the mainstream) and we hear it from the better hip-hop artists. There’s still enough room for some more–and no, Coldplay and Muse don’t count, even though I do like some of the more Queen-influenced aspects of the latter band.
Oh, there’s plenty of drama in pop music. Most albums don’t aspire to be this huge, though. Outside some of the most arrogant and talented hip-hop artists, there are few people left in the mainstream who can sell millions of albums and actually make albumsrather than glorified song collections. Some Nights manages to be suitable for the radio. Look, you have autotune and huge, fat beats. Strong choruses (sometimes overpowering, as in my least favorite song “We Are Young”) drive the songs, which are fleshed out intelligently, growing bigger and bigger even when they are ostensibly quiet and moody (“Carry On”). The stories Ruess tells, the lyrics he sets down, feel authentic even when piped through computers, but they have a deliberate and artificial quality that outshines the reedy naturalism of most songwriting from those playing the Game of Autheticity (TM).
The album has problems. A few songs are much weaker than the others (including the big radio single and “All Alright”) and though the band recalls Queen, it doesn’t have the chops to impress the same way. My favorite two songs are the first two songs, and though it might be the best one-two punch song combination of any album I’ll listen to this year, and it’s enough to sustain my interest up until the well-executed closing track “Stars,” the more inconsistent middle makes you aware of the band’s limitations. Fun. has a lot of room to grow, but they’re a great breath of fresh air for my library. A rock band that gets back to what rock music does best, namely be a vehicle for theatrical drama, and what pop music does best, which is to sound great in a vapid way while worming its way insidiously into your mind.
Fun. also put the point home that taste is ultimately totally personal and a bit amorphous, not resting on genres or particular artists but a specific sensibility. Like good music wherever it comes from. That doesn’t make my own stylistic preferences less important, but more shows that they transcend labels. Fun lesson, eh?
By the way, there’s been this weird snake sitting on my neck this whole time. It’s coming out of my ear, whispering the lyrics to “One Foot” over and over again. I think I’m under its control. It’s telling me to stop writing, that you’ve had enough. Well, that’s that then. I’ll be signing off soon, Reptilian Majesty. Of course I will polish your scales, oh master. And bathe you in sultry springs, yes that too. We’re going to have such fun. together aren’t we?