Live: Say Anything Works Through Its Growing Pains At Best Buy Theater
Best Buy Theater
Friday, April 13
Better than: So what say you/ and all your friends/ step up to my friends/ in the alley tonight/ yeah.
On Friday night, Say Anything ended their encore with two songs of the same name: "Admit It." The first, from Say Anything's 2004 record ... is a Real Boy, and the second, from their 2012 record Anarchy, My Dear, both contain the sort of wild, mean rhetoric that seeks to character-assassinate the "hipster," or the idea of a hipster, or just someone whose outward projections seem calculated in the cynical. It's practically spoken-word: "Despite your pseudo-bohemian appearance and vaguely leftist doctrine of beliefs/ you know nothing about art or sex that you couldn't read in any trendy New York underground fashion magazine." All of the details and signifiers singer Max Bemis gibbers through ultimately form a kind of cipher, a thing that only reflexively defines Bemis. It doesn't matter if there's a demonstrable person at the end of the song. It's more an ethos than total enmity. The final verse, where Bemis turns the mirror on himself, locks the song into perspective, newly full of a kind of twisted pathos: "Well, let me tell you this/ I am shamelessly self-involved/ I spend hours in front of the mirror making my hair elegantly disheveled."
The new "Admit It," which is actually titled "Admit it Again," seems curiously oriented toward critics, and there is no reflective verse, no object in a mirror, just mean facelessness. Here Bemis is the cipher, yelling needlessly at people who will probably never listen to the song. (One line seems transparently aimed toward, um, a music-reviewing website: "Defining your own self-worth by the opinion of a stupid website with Satan as its figurehead.") It plods musically; where the first "Admit It" nearly rushes by you, the new one dully paces around. Arranged together, in concert, you could witness a band's slow decline in a kind of hyperspeed, time unfurling. Besides, early in the newer song, Bemis sings, "Don't want to hear about how the latest Rihanna single is a postmodern masterpiece," which I choose to take personally.
Say Anything is a capable live band: Bemis stretches himself and revolves compass-like; twin-guitar solos are recreated perfectly from record; lights shift and dart around in the sort of universal time of concert lighting. But the competence can dull over an hour. New songs can feel like dead zones; only a slight ratio of the audience is aware of and responsive to them. Everyone else shifts indelicately, waiting the unfamiliar song out, newly aware of time and pace and how some songs in the world unnecessarily digress. Nothing else quite merits the dizzying reaction to the ... is a Real Boy songs, where chains of heads unlock from the neck.
This is particularly a problem in emo, which celebrates the inaugural and unformed. It's oriented toward ideas of rawness and energy, calibrated to favor an early, disorganized expression of one's ambition. Everything shifts and tightens into the perspective of the road behind an artist. So a deliberate, unnuanced appropriation of a past song can not only feel cynical but can leave a hard, cynical film on a band's whole musical life. Album two is the classic. Album three is the sprawling double album. Album four is the realmic shift into pop. Album five misunderstands the function of the previous two, attempts to reverse-engineer the band back to album two, pick up their roots and replant them. But there is a degrading. It's not so much that Bemis is unable to effectively reassimilate into his pastit happens once or twice on Anarchy, it happened once or twice in concert, in some thrilling dual-guitar phrase. It's just that he's another person now.
Critical bias: Actually I am of the disposition that would prefer more new songs in setlists of most bands. Unfortunately, ...Is a Real Boy is totally oriented toward a live performancenimbly placed gang vocals, involuntarily expressiveness.
Overheard: "Feel my shirt."
Burn a Miracle
In Defense of the Genre
Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too
Slumming it with Johnny
Every Man Has a Molly
The Church Channel
Walk Through Hell
Alive with the Glory of Love
Admit it Again