It’s hard to get mad at All Time Low for looking back over its shoulder.
A decade out from their sublime pop-punk breakthrough So Wrong, It’s Right, All Time Low have taken the gentlest left turn into MOR pop with an anemic eulogy for the band’s glory days. This is a record made by dudes who earnestly believe they peaked in high school, who could construe sharing a Rockstar Energy Drink as a romantic gesture. Which would all be well and good if ATL had in any way tapped into the implicit fun of the musical style that brought them success. But lead singer and primary songwriter Alex Gaskarth, who married last year and turns 30 this year, seems too preoccupied with the past to be having much fun. As he sings on “Life of the Party,” he seems caught “Somewhere between who I used to be/ And who I’ll be tomorrow.”
So Wrong, It’s Right was just one among many towering, byzantine monuments erected to pop-punk in 2007. Paramore’s Riot!, Fall Out Boy’s Infinity on High, to name just a few, came out at a moment when hardcore punk, emo, post-hardcore and power-pop had collided and fused to the point that their roots were barely recognizable. And of course the wild success of bands like My Chemical Romance and Panic! at the Disco brought a playful, dark theatricality to the playing field that was packaged and sold by Hot Topic to eager teens across the nation who loved streaks of neon in their hair as much as they loved thick, crudely applied eye-liner.
Among bands that were morphing the genre into stranger and stranger forms, All Time Low clung to the California skate-punk sound bequeathed to it by Green Day, Blink-182 and New Found Glory from whom ATL lifted its name. At the beginning. the band made big, Romantic music that took the blueprint handed to them, removed alienation and self-deprecation and went long on the earnest sketches of good times and youthful dalliances.
After the commercial flop of its 2009 major label debut Nothing Personal, ATL retreated to their home base of late-emo stalwart Hopeless Records to churn out a handful of albums that, while not measuring up to that album’s creative spirit, were solid enough exercises in pop-punk song craft to grow and maintain a deeply loyal fan base. Its last release Future Hearts even debuted at number two on the Billboard charts and had features from Mark Hoppus and Joel Madden of Good Charlotte.
With its most successful album to date and the blessing of its elders, it seemed ATL was poised to deliver a new record that might justify a career for a pop-punk band outside of the bloated time-machine of Warped Tour.
Which is perhaps why Last Young Renegades feels so disappointing. Instead of building on its core sound of soaring vocal lines, hyper-active drumming and thick, chugging guitar hooks, Gaskarth has opted to croon in his middle register across 10 attenuated pop-rock tracks that for the most part lack hooks altogether. Where ATL in its prime was a master of selling listeners on the genuine romance of youth, sex, and fun with concrete, sensually detailed lyrics, these songs are peppered with vague head-scratchers like “Making mistakes that were made for us/ We brush them off like paper cuts” and “You and me are like drugs and candy/ Take one down for the young and easy.”
Some lyrics lean to the vaguely anthemic as on “Good Times” where Gaskarth reminisces about being “Boys in black smoking cigarettes/ Chasing girls who didn’t know love yet” over a loping drum beat and reverb-heavy hand claps. Elsewhere they stumble into noxious, unconvincing sentimentality as on “Nightmares,” a paltry ballad about ill-defined childhood fears and how, as Gaskarth has said, “we outgrow many of our fears, but some never change.”
“Nice2KnoU” is perhaps the best track here and the only one fans of the band’s previous work might recognize as an All Time Low song. A driving beat, palm-muted power chords and group chants of “OH OH OH” soundtrack Gaskarth’s only remotely forward-looking lyrics, “We can’t go back to yesterday.” Yet Gaskarth has still described the song as “a tribute to our roots and the history of the band.” Indeed, the song’s video features the band leaving roses at locations of historical significance to the group, such as the club where Gaskarth made out with the eponymous stripper from their indelible single “Dear Maria Count Me In.”
It’s hard to get mad at All Time Low for looking back over its shoulder, especially when Blink-182 released its own dour look-back record last year and legacy outfits like Simple Plan and Good Charlotte are cashing in on fans coming of disposable-income age. But All Time Low just doesn’t have the output or the reputation to justify such a tortured nostalgia-trip, much less one that deviates so far from its signature sound. Moreover, when peers like Haley Williams of Paramore have made a smooth transition into other genres while still maintaining its original spirit, it’s clear that this record’s most damning flaw is its eagerness to hunker down in the no man’s land of MOR pop-rock while forgetting about pop-punk’s only real tenet: have fun.