To ask of another album like Even If It Kills Me from Motion City Soundtrack is embarrassing. Eight years after its release, I have to choke back the urge to cry when I listen to “Last Night” and watch my reflection in the Greyhound window blend with the brackish, gray landscape of Upstate New York. As it turns out, when I flee from a relationship, I’m still looking to seek comfort in squeamish accounts of cats clawing the floorboard. Motion City Soundtrack has a way of discussing the delicate delinquencies of modern romance with zany humor that draws from panic and frustration, while gingerly holding onto fading details. Antonia’s proclivity for collecting flashlights, eating Captain Crunch and citing Annie Hall makes me feel like I still have a shot at finding someone who won’t run away screaming when he finds out that I can’t sleep without a swiss army knife under my pillow.
It’s unreasonable yet completely inherent: I want them to sing about making terrible mistakes so I feel better about making mine. I want them to tell me it’s ok to compensate lack of love with ice-creams and ten-dollar wines. But you won’t find foreboding cats clawing the door on Panic Stations. Though sonically competent, the new album superficially touches the expansive territory plowed in the previous albums. With producer John Angello (The Hold Steady, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth) on board, it seems like the band is so preoccupied with writing “great hooks” that they take it for granted that vacant sentiments won’t knock fans off their barstools. Panic Stations is clouded with hard-driving guitars and aggressively cheerful moogs punctuated by an insincere collection of ‘whoa’s that abort even an imagined possibility of genuineness.
Justin Pierre propels the opener “Anything At All” with a part-coy, part-goofy “let’s do this”, which gives away the going-to-be-a-return-to-form album. The track is full-on power-pop strong until the vague narrative denigrates its structure. Unlike “The Future Freaks Me Out” from their 2003 album I Am The Movie, “Anything At All” ironically faces some trouble expressing the lack of communication in the relationship.
“TKO” is a tepid track about the feverish pull and push of love. Though it’s unfair to peg the song to “Fell In Love Without You”, it falls flat with a perfunctory chorus: “You keep knocking me out/ I can’t get up/ I’ll just stay down”. And the synths in the bridge only weigh down the song further. “Lose Control” bristles dangerously with a processional drum kit, drawing from stadium rock a la fun.’s One Foot, only to poignantly nosedive into mediocre results. The verse serves as a nagging reminder that this is a nautical themed record and it’s vital to the band’s artistic integrity to include lines like, “stranded on top of this ugly ocean, everybody looks the same”.
“Heavy Boots” and “It’s a Pleasure” are two of the catchiest albeit corniest songs on the album that try so desperately to relate (“You are not alone/ We’ve all had our battles with darkness and shadows/ I’m here to let you know/ It’s a pleasure to meet you”) that they become all too transparent in their out-and-out commercial outreach.
“Over It Now” is clearly intended to be a fuck-you song that everyone can relate to. From the cringe-worthy way Pierre pronounces “action figures” to the way he exploits tried-and-tested allusions to his past substance-abuse escapades, it becomes explicit that I’m not the only one aching to recreate Even If It Kills Me. If only success were formulaic. The same sentiment that was once endearing, now begins to nag, dragging along until it becomes irritating.
Melodically, “Broken Arrow” is the closest the album comes to sincerity, even though it’s unable to reproduce the somber-wonder-twin type of harmony lionized in “It Had To Be You”. The nautical theme ensues in “Gravity” with the opening line, “I didn’t want to be the anchor in your heart”. The halfhearted chorus is frustrating because it seems as if Pierre himself is disaffected by what he is singing. Crammed with even more extensive but jejune nautical metaphors (“I’d like to anchor someday”, “my heart belongs beneath the ocean floor”, “clutching the tide as the ship goes down”–you get the drift), “The Samurai Code” is tired, trite and tiring. The prosaic distortion of the guitar and the petering synths in the second verse sound over-rehearsed, like they are trying too hard to fit in a neat blueprint rock scheme prescribed by the producer.
Album closer “Days Will Run Away” is the most stripped-down song on the Panic Stations. That being said, the band just couldn’t seem to resist the urge of a no-frills production, as evidenced by the droning range of guitars that comes in during the latter half of the song. “Days” draws a very solemn vocal and guitar arrangement from Sufjan Stevens, but chooses to endorse plagiarized dime store philosophies (“living a million years in a moment”, “why is goodbye so hard to say”) instead of providing actual insight.
Panic is lacking in many ways–it distracts the listener with overproduction instead of involving them with a strong narrative. Their nautical theme—and here’s a metaphor they glossed over—leaves them stuck at sea. It surely has a few catchy hooks that make for decent listen if you don’t pay any attention to the lyrics. But that’s the thing: I don’t turn to Motion City Soundtrack for clean production and structural sophistication; I turn to them for moments that capture the fragile fluctuations of human stability so exquisitely, so simply, that I feel like I’m not alone. Maybe they got it right in the 2007 track, “Last Night”: they really can’t compete with all my damn ideas.
Key Tracks: “Heavy Boots” “It’s a Pleasure”