What happens when a pop-punk boy band grows up? They stop playing pop-punk, apparently.
Such is the fate — and maybe the tragedy — of 5 Seconds Of Summer, the Australian quartet who just defeated Beyoncé and Jay-Z in the race for America’s #1 album. Youngblood, the Carters-vanquishing album in question, is a decent collection of pop songs with rock underpinnings, constructed with expertise and polished to a glossy sparkle. Yet for all its pristine catchiness, the 5SOS of Youngblood is perilously indistinct compared to the band that teeny-bopped out of Sydney chanting, “She looks so perfect standing there/ In my American Apparel underwear!”
When 5 Seconds Of Summer blasted into the pop mainstream four years ago, they were a relatively unique proposition. After a decade and a half of Warped Tour types commingling with TRL types, these guys went ahead and completed the merger. Like their benefactors in One Direction, they were unmistakable teen idols — fresh-faced handsomeness, carefully stylized hair and wardrobe, traded-off verses building to titanic group choruses — but 5SOS were also a rock band slinging instruments rather than stepping their way through choreographed dance routines. Pop-punk had already evolved into hair metal for the MySpace generation thanks to Fall Out Boy and the like; in those terms, this band was like the New Kids On The Block playacting as Poison. In another sense, they were retracing the Beatles’ footsteps: boys with guitars commanding a screaming mass of teenage fans.
The Beatles eventually moved on from the bashed-out sing-along anthems that initially caused such a frenzy. So have 5 Seconds Of Summer; after two chart-topping albums largely powered by bombastic drum fills and resounding gang vocals, they disappeared for three years and returned a new band. But whereas the Fab Four ventured out into a disparate range of psychedelic pop sounds that sometimes challenged and even bewildered their listeners, 5SOS have embraced the extreme centrism of soft-rock. The band that made Youngblood is now difficult to distinguish from Maroon 5, OneRepublic, and Charlie Puth — suppliers of the often flavorless filler that glues together pop radio playlists.
That’s not to say Youngblood never rocks. “Moving Along” and deluxe edition bonus track “Monster Among Men” both call back to the crunchy guitars and punchy rhythms of early 5SOS, albeit in an easy listening context designed to bleed into the top 40’s genreless morass. Mostly the album slips all the way into that lukewarm soup, completely abandoning the project’s original pop-punk pinup ethos in the process. “In order for us to feel fulfilled as artists, we had to push ourselves to make something new,” guitarist Michael Clifford said in a new Billboard interview, which is certainly one way of putting it. I suppose a band could find some kind of satisfaction in aiming for the absolute middle and nailing it.
The satisfaction of you, the listener, depends on your tolerance for artisanal vanilla as well as how attached you were to the old 5SOS. As someone who appreciated a group with a unique twist on pop music making a splash in the mainstream — and who thought “She Looks So Perfect” sounded as perfect as she supposedly looked, don’t @ me — I can’t help but be a little disappointed 5 Seconds Of Summer have opted to sound like every mediocre top-40 mercenary instead. A distinct identity is a terrible thing to waste. But if you have any room for immaculate and inoffensive soft rock in your life, Youngblood does in fact have some jams worthy of your consideration. They’ve even helpfully front-loaded them for you.
Consider the album-opening title track, with its foreboding minor-key progression, galloping synth-bass groove, and passionately howled chorus. If it falls short of badass, it ably makes the case for 5SOS growing out of pop-punk and slots them alongside the 1975 among hyper-polarizing groups specializing in super-catchy ’80s and ’90s pastiche. “Youngblood” is followed by “Want You Back,” which softens the edges significantly. This was the single that introduced the new 5SOS back in February; as such, my initial reaction to it was disappointment about their middling metamorphosis. Having adjusted my expectations accordingly, I can appreciate the effervescence of its synthetic lite-funk production and the cyclical beauty of its hook.
Things fall off significantly from there. The best of the rest, “Talk Fast,” goes all-in on Romantics-style Reagan-era signifiers. The most startling, the bonus track “Meet You There,” drops a ballistic drum-n-bass blitzkrieg where the dubstep drop would have gone five years ago. There’s also some appeal to the slithering “Valentine,” which imagines what Arctic Monkeys going pop might sound like, and “More,” an aggressively rippling Drive-influenced rocker that also kind of turns into an Arctic Monkeys song when the riff kicks in.
Unfortunately, the longer Youngblood goes on, the less it holds together. Not that their first two albums were all-killer no-filler masterpieces, but however strongly the singles argued in favor of this reboot, the back half of the album makes a pretty compelling counterargument. There are moribund Shawn Mendes machinations “Better Man” and “Woke Up In Japan.” There’s a sub-DNCE dance-rocker called “If Walls Could Talk.” There’s a real flatliner of an album-closing ballad called “Ghost Of You.” There is “Empty Wallets,” a bouncy number straight out of that “eclectic” post-Beck moment in the late ’90s, which makes Sugar Ray look like geniuses in comparison.
5SOS really didn’t need to go this route. Counterintuitively, juvenile pop-punk bands have generally aged more gracefully — or at least more successfully — than acts from most youth-oriented genres. Two years ago both Green Day and Blink-182 scored #1 albums, at least a decade after their prime. Granted, neither act is tracking with pop audiences like they used to, but 5SOS — all of whom are still younger than Mark Hoppus was when he asked, “What’s My Age Again” — seemed ideally positioned to try. Instead they’re moving in parallel with their former muse American Apparel, which also relaunched this year: a milder and less memorable version of their former self, utilitarian but with little to set it apart.
In the wake of his death, XXXTentacion had arguably his best chart week ever. The late rapper/singer becomes the first lead artist to land a posthumous #1 single in 20 years. Meanwhile his last two albums have returned to a very busy Billboard 200 top 10.
Let’s deal with the singles first. “SAD!” — which previously peaked at #7 — rockets from #52 to #1, becoming X’s first #1 hit. Per Billboard, it’s the first time an artist has hit #1 posthumously since Static Major on Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” in 2008 and the first time someone’s done it as a lead artist since the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” in 1997. X and Biggie join six other acts who’ve had #1 singles after dying:
John Lennon, with “(Just Like) Starting Over” (five weeks, 1980-81); Jim Croce, with “Time in a Bottle” (two, 1973-74); Janis Joplin, with “Me and Bobby McGee” (two, 1971); and Otis Redding, with “(Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” (four, 1968).
“SAD!” prevents Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin’s “I Like It” from hitting #1 this week. Instead it clocks in at #2, a new peak for the track and a new career best for Bad Buddy and J Balvin. (Balvin also surpassed Drake to become Spotify’s most streamed artist globally this week.) Both songs bump Drake’s “Nice For What” to #3 after seven nonconsecutive weeks at #1; remarkably, in the 10 weeks since its release it had not charted lower than #2.
At a new #4 high is Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams.” Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You” is at #5, followed by Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Psycho” at #6, Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” at #7, Drake’s “God Plan” at #8, Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left To Cry” at #9, and Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey’s “The Middle” at #10.
Over on the Billboard 200 albums chart, the aforementioned 5 Seconds Of Summer beat out the Carters and become the first band to debut their first three albums at #1. The Australian pop act’s Youngblood moved 142,000 equivalent album units, including 117,000 in pure album sales, surpassing the 123,000 units and 70,000 sales enjoyed by Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s collaborative album Everything Is Love. Like many acts these days, 5SOS benefitted from bundles packaging a copy of the new album with the purchase of a concert ticket.
XXXTentacion’s ? is back up to #3, with Post Malone in at #4. Then comes Nas, debuting Nasir at #5 with 77,000 units/49,000 sales. Christina Aguilera debuts at #6 with Liberation via 68,000 units/62,000 sales. Another XXX album, last year’s 17, is back up to #7. And rounding out the top 10 are Juice WRLD, Cardi B, and Jason Aldean.
Demi Lovato – “Sober”
What an absolutely crushing ballad about the real-life heartbreak of falling off the wagon. It’s rare for pop stars to be so vulnerable in such plainspoken terms, even rarer to experience such confessions in real time. Kudos to Lovato for laying it all out like this.
Ariana Grande – “Raindrops”
Grande released this miniature video on her 25th birthday. Supposedly this is the whole song. It’s not the interlude we’re all waiting to hear, but it’s a fine showcase for her voice.
Years & Years – “Palo Santo” & “All For You”
Olly Alexander has the pop chops to work behind the scenes for decades, but he’s got way too much star power to retreat to the shadows anytime soon.
OneRepublic – “Connection”
Like I said, the late ’90s are officially back!
Daya – “Safe”
“Safe” just about says it.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Adele is reportedly starting work on a new album. [The Sun]
- Miley Cyrus and Mark Ronson have a new collaboration “coming soon.” [Instagram]
- Sam Smith broke up with his 13 Reasons Why boyfriend Brandon Flynn. [People]
- Robbie Williams joined Taylor Swift on “Angels” at Wembley Stadium. [YouTube]
- Zedd teased a song with Shawn Mendes. [Twitter]
- Marshmello’s animated “Fly” video features Ducktales. [YouTube]
- Starting next week the UK’s Official Singles Chart will factor in video streams. [Official Charts]
- Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Kacey Musgraves are among the performers at this year’s Farm Aid in Hartford 9/22. [PR Newswire]
- Cardi B donated $8k to the family of Lesandro (Junior) Guzman-Feliz, the Bronx teen killed by gang members in a case of mistaken identity. [Inside Edition]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
You don’t. https://t.co/FTK2FIlCjE
— Ashley Reese (@offbeatorbit) June 27, 2018