Album Review: Hebrews – Say Anything

It wouldn’t be a Say Anything album if it weren’t polarizing.

With Hebrews, we caught Max Bemis in a huge state of transition, losing his drummer and only other true “band member”  Coby Linder, as well as having several major changes in his life. This means there’s a lot on his mind. For a lyricist of his caliber, the best thing listeners can ask for is him to have a little bit of chaos going on in his life.

The newly married Bemis has recently become a father as well, and Say Anything’s last release Anarchy, My Dear was met with much derision from fans and critics. The songs were tinged with happiness, no longer barbed with anger and venom and witty putdowns. The tracks that were angry felt false and forced. He was exulting the love he found himself surrounded by, no longer able to deprecate his addictions, his disorders, his lack of connections or lame sense of self-importance. He was better. He now had someone to live for, and a baby on the way.

For a band that built their success on impotent rage, this did not make his audience happy. Life’s ironic that way.

What’s even more ironic is how Max reacted.

From the start, it seems that his goal was to alienate as many listeners as possible. For one, there are no electric guitars on this album.  There aren’t even acoustic guitars on the album. The majority of the music is symphonic – represented with strings, synths, and keyboards. The only standard rock instruments represented are bass guitar and drums. This takes some time to get used to, especially because Max is so at writing guitar parts, and on some tracks the arrangements either fall flat or are ridiculous to a detrimental degree. Either way, anyone who’s listened to the band knows that the centerpiece has always been Max’s lyrics over a catchy tune, regardless of the instrumentation (he’s done it before – see tracks like “Do Better”, “Crush’d” and “Baby Girl, I’m a Blur” for proof) and here he writes some of his best words since his fabled ‘debut’ Is a Real Boy.

Detractors will be surprised at the anger they find in copious amounts on this record, a somewhat of a return to form. Max’s ire, that was provoked after Anarchy, was so disregarded by those  that claim to be fans, but really just want to hear …Is a Real Boy time and time again. So he pointed his pen at them, and the result is the most spirited he’s sounded in a long while. Some of these tracks, like “Judas Decapitation” and “Kall Me Kubrick” contain some of his most venomous lyrics since his early material, because he finally has something to fuel his fire – the backwards expectations of his audience. Anyone who wishes he’ll repeat the past again will hate this record, and it’s all the more ironic for it, since he openly acknowledges that multiple times throughout the album. The clearest example, “Lost My Touch”, says in the very first line: “Some say I’ve lost my touch at crafting Say Anything songs. I suppose I’ll let you take my place on stage.” This is as obvious and in your face as it gets, and you really have to admire the audacity it takes to meet your haters head on like that. He’s laying all his cards on the table, and it’s really admirable even if the music choices didn’t work, which they do way more often than not.

Anyone who listens to this album with an open mind will discover some true gems. Driven by this new idea of Say Anything as a “collective”, every track has a guest artist on it, ranging from Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra to Aaron Weiss of MewithoutYou to Tom DeLonge of blink-182 to Brian Sella of The Front Bottoms. Keith Buckley of Every Time I Die shows up, and there are a couple of different drummers mixed in there in lieu of finding a permanent replacement. His wife Sheri DuPree-Bemis shows up on almost every track, as well as nearly every other member of the DuPree family in some capacity. It provides a variety of different flavors and the result is some of the most interesting songs I’ve heard from Say Anything in quite some time.

It’s not all derision at fake fans, either. He continues to be the best at intensely personal self-deprecation on songs like “John McClane” and “My Greatest Fear is Splendid”. The former has nothing but a simple synth line and vocals, while the latter sounds like a baroque Broadway song on steroids and Red Bull, complete with fiddle solo. He grapples with religion, including the genocide of his Jewish people (the title track “Hebrews” is particularly scathing in this regard) and of course, his insecurities about being a father and a husband. “Boyd” may be the heaviest song Say Anything has ever done, with deep angry strings and double bass drumming. The lyrics talk about Max imagining what it will be like when his newborn daughter finally becomes old enough to date boys while having the clear memories of what an asshole he was to girls. Emotionally, it is raw and true, and that’s all I personally expect from Max Bemis.

I can’t call this album a return to form, because Max and Say Anything have never sounded like this before. It is a return to the mindset that any expectations set for a band usually come with the impression that it should sound like what came before it. Max Bemis is the first artist to really publicly refute that claim, and he does it with this album. The past is the past. You’re not the same person you were ten years ago – why do people expect the lead singer and songwriter of a band to be any different (or, in this case, similar)? Say Anything comes in hot and heavy on every inch of this record to say, “Hey, this is who we are, and this is what we wrote. No one’s asking you to keep listening. But if you want to, we’ll at least be sure to make it interesting.” And if Hebrews is anything, it’s interesting. But it’s also so much more.

Say Anything is coming to The Electric Factory on June 26th! Tickets available here.

Get there using SEPTA! Philly’s own cheap, reliable transportation.

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