I Think It Is: The Return of Say Anything

I listened to emo in 2004. This may be something that, outside of ironic Fall Out Boy singalongs at pregames, millennials try to forget, now that they've draped themselves in the trappings of indie rock curated by Pitchfork rather than IHeartRadio, but I would be willing to bet that they did too. One person who won't let them forget, however, is Max Bemis. His new album, I Don't Think It Is, continues his history of self-aware, self-effacing, too-much-information lyrics without losing the pulse of men fresh off of their quarter-life crises. So, no, Max Bemis hasn't lost your number, and this time he called it, coked up, with a couple of his weirder friends.

At the point where the most relevant release Say Anything release of the 2010s was the All My Friends are Enemies compilation disc, many (including myself) were ready to write Say Anything off as a band that had their best years behind them. On the surface, Bemis' reality seemed to be classic punk rock story. After having a wife and children, many thought that Bemis was still trying to growl some resentment out of his potbelly before putting his kid down for a nap, but Bemis proves not only that the old dog has some new tricks, but he has some fight still in him as well.

The departure of drummer, and only other long-time member, Coby Linder before their previous effort, Hebrews, I Don't Think It Is, marks a huge line-up change. Mutemath drummer Brian King is behind the kit on this record, and members of At the Drive-In, the Blood Brothers, and Tiny Moving Parts fill in the rest of the band. The result is Bemis' continued journey into progressive rock, or as he puts it "doing whatever the hell [he wants]." Say Anything's sound has always been sophisticated in the genre, but twelve years after their breakout record, Is a Real Boy, emo has evolved. Fortunately for Bemis, so has he.

In addition to prog rock, Bemis was strongly influenced by Kanye West. He went so far as to say he was attempting to make his own version of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye didn't seem to disagree, and with the number of times Bemis reinvents the wheel on this record, I might just believe him.

I Don't Think It Is still has all of the Say Anything hallmarks: Bemis' lyricism taking center stage, "la la la's" just after lines crammed full of syllables, and off-the-wall drum work (of a different variety than Linder's, but equally effective), so longtime Say Anything fans have something to hold onto, but the album takes the band's sound into uncharted territory. The explicit incorporation of hip-hop into Bemis' writing has been a long time coming. Bemis has surely always been a rap fan, but finally biting the bullet and writing rapped verses allows him to accomplish things he has only hinted at before. "Rum" sounds like 2009's "She Will Follow You" from the band's self-titled if Bemis had allowed himself to lean into his influences, follow internal rhymes and associative diction (Bemis was made for hashtag rap) instead of packaging the lyrics into a sing-song cadence.

The rest of the band's influence, however, cannot be overstated. These instrumentals do not sound like a Say Anything record. Album closer "Varicose Visage" is a noise rock track, and that influence can be felt all throughout the record. Whereas Bemis has played with noise on songs like "Yellow Cat/Red Cat," never has he to this extent. Say Anything has long been a champion of the complicated orchestration, but often by playing more complex rhythms and implementing time changes. This turn to a less accessible sound would normally be jarring in an emo band, but Bemis' lyricism is pronounced enough to help a listener acclimate to the new playground he's found himself in.

This album is a rare bird in that the second half is better than the first. From "Princess" at the halfway point, each song is better than the last. In fact, "Wire Mom" may have one of the best Say Anything hooks to date. The second half also strikes the right balance of traditional Say Anything and the new sound, whereas the opening half has much more experimentation, for better or (in my opinion) worse.

Bemis' lyrics, though, are anything but experimental. Bemis stays in his wheelhouse of pureeing pop culture and hyper-awareness of his own life, but this time with a decidedly middle age perspective. Dad punk is nothing new; it was pulled off to great effect by Jeff Rosenstock on last year's We Cool?, but when Bemis references his pension on "Goshua," and beating the dead horse of emo to feed his family on "Varicose Visage" it's clear he's more Duplass Brothers than Dunham these days. He's moved from making fun of pseudo-bohemian appearances to ridiculing working for a start-up and trolling Pitchfork for fresh drops.

None of this is to say, however, that the album doesn't have its flaws. Bemis puts on an air of Anglophilia on this record, "wanking" on "Goshua" and "whinging" on "Varicose Visage," both of which are out of place. Bemis also makes the compulsory attempt to be socially conscious on this release, pawing at populist rhetoric, non-binary identification, and racial politics. While these were something he had to acknowledge, he doesn't do anything novel here. Say Anything has always been at its best oversharing the intimate detail of its frontman's insecurities. Speaking of, there are the prerequisite cringe-worthy lines scattered throughout the record, but I don't think Bemis has ever cared less about them. The trade-off for Bemis' best lines has always been a few clunkers, but in looking at this as a rap album in the confessional context of MBDTF (at least in the lyric-writing process), it makes it much more palatable.

Given how different this album is to the rest of Say Anything's catalog, I'm hesitant to call this a return to form, but this may be the band's best release since Is a Real Boy... Where the band was once a pace car in emo, pushing bands to more intricate arrangements and indie rock research sessions, I think, in time, this album will, like its influence MBDTF, make its mark on its genre.