One of music’s biggest cult fanbases comes through for their Australian pop-rock idols once again, propelling them to the top of the charts without much of a hit single to speak of. After lifting themselves up from the depths of trendy early-decade drudgery with their last project with the more pop-oriented and often anthemic CALM, the group have once again come through with an enjoyable set of tracks, distancing themselves from the era that they themselves now call “cringey” as they move into their late 20s. Without as much help as you might expect from big-name pop producers, lead guitarist Michael Clifford takes up most of the production mantle and delivers some much-improved mixes. While the group is still far from touching upon anything revolutionary, their songwriting has certainly come a long way.
Opening with the sound of chirping birds, “COMPLETE MESS” might not have the same kind of larger-than-life harmonies and gang vocals of their last opener “Red Desert,” but it’s still a great showcase of the power of all of the band members coming together during its energetic choruses. It almost sounds like the band is emulating a trap beat with live instrumentation on the track, which makes for an engaging backdrop to a contemplative acoustic loop that explodes into the hard-hitting refrain. The music cuts out for bigger impacts, righting a big wrong of their past when it comes to earning their moments. “Easy For You To Say” fixes another common error – their falsetto moments were often the most grating thing about the band’s biggest hits, but this one sees it toned down and soaring as it’s featured on one of the catchiest choruses here. It’s so easy to have these modern pop-rock mixes be muddy, but Clifford does a great job on this track to have each little percussion hit cut through the mix as the beats steadily increase in complexity and build up to the hook, heavier instrumentation finally creeping in near the end. The track “Bad Omens,” on the other hand, is one of the most reminiscent of their older work. With a rather generic, Shawn Mendes-esque melody and similar production style to the previous two tracks without as strong of a hook, we’ve all heard this song before. A couple weird beat switches and tempo changes don’t land, while the chorus contains their old trick of jumping up to a much higher note without much warning.
The improved mixing isn’t any more evident than on the track “Me Myself & I,” which takes things in an almost hip-hop adjacent direction – the beat is a little reminiscent of Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” especially in how much pop maestro Jon Bellion, taking over for Clifford here, makes the cymbals pop. The beat dropping when lead vocalist Luke Hemmings jumps up an octave really makes it feel like things are being pushed to a higher gear as well, and having things cut out briefly to reveal some unexpectedly crunchy guitars in the back is another great moment. “Take My Hand” is a calmer moment and the longest track here by far, leaving space for some more introspective lyrics than usual about longing for connection while knowing that fixing yourself comes first. Still, the central melody is pretty mechanical and stilted, something that only comes out more when a robotic filter is applied to the backing vocals. The formulae are completely evident by the time you hit “CAROUSEL,” but it’s clear the band know what they’re doing – they have the instinct for a memorable pop hook, something that’s evidenced even further on the next track “Older,” a vintage-sounding tune that was apparently written half-jokingly. With the airy vocals of Sierra Deaton (of Alex & Sierra) backing up Hemmings’ rougher baritone, it’s an adorable piano ballad with a Disney-esque flair about hoping for a partner that lasts a lifetime. “CAROUSEL” also contains an interesting drum part that’s a little more involved than you’d expect, giving the sense of urgency that the band touches on during the chorus as they sing about needing to escape life’s endless carousel.
The track “HAZE” is the album’s only big miss, feeling copy-and-pasted as the disjointed track switches abruptly from appropriately hazy verses to a chorus that kicks things into high gear out of nowhere. The obnoxious synthetic trumpet sound in the back certainly doesn’t help matters. The tracks “You Don’t Go To Parties” and “BLENDER,” however, begin to spice things up in a more positive way as the album moves into its second half. The former finds the deeper voice of Calum Hood taking over in the track’s most notable moments, with Ashton Irwin joining the mix as well, giving us some welcome switch-ups during an album that feels very instrumentally stagnant at times. The track continues to follow the driving pop-rock style of the album’s early goings, but the new vocalists sell lyrics about being lonely with everyone you know in the room well. “BLENDER” goes for something totally different, hitting on an almost Charlie Puth-style quality of sounding minimal and dynamic at the same time while coasting on little more than an excellent bassline. Hemmings beings a more sinister, whispery vocal to the table that overrides his overblown falsetto and overdone rhymes, while a surprise sax solo ties it all together.
“Caramel” is the final hidden gem near the end of the project, featuring another strong bassline and some syncopated acoustics livening up the chorus behind some impressive four-part harmonies. The decision to put an arena-ready halftime instrumental breakdown, structured like an EDM drop, sounds truly alien and futuristic when it should probably come off as dated. Michael Clifford gets in on the lead vocals on “Best Friends,” another basic yet endearingly wholesome 5 Seconds of Summer tune, while the band have admitted that “Bleach” was a pitch for a Clorox jingle – still, for ad music, it’s a decently emotional track, though things truly start to feel too long by the end as we hear the same song too many times. “Red Line” is an engaging track to close things out with, with some swung rhythms and all four bandmates taking their turns on lead vocals as they spin a danceable and upbeat track about a breakup.
After the many years it took without much progression from their Green Day-esque earlier singles to whatever the somehow-successful “Youngblood” was supposed to be, hearing 5 Seconds of Summer improving and taking their pop songwriting instincts to the next level on their last two albums has truly been a surprise. Next step is to get out of their comfort zone.
Favourite Tracks: Me Myself & I, Older, Caramel, Easy For You To Say, BLENDER
Least Favourite Track: HAZE