I could do this, or I could do that/ I could pull an elephant right out of a hat/ I could slay a dragon/ or I could be a king/ I could be anything!” So sings Gordon Gano on “I Could Do Anything,” the second track on the Violent Femmes’ first studio album in about 16 years. What they can’t do, it would seem, is repeat their old formula. If there is anything remarkable about this album, it’s just how closely it resembles their sound while completely missing what made them appealing. There is something missing, however, and it’s difficult to pin down. It may be more accurate to say there are a few things missing.

“What You Really Mean” could be an acoustic slow jam smack in the middle of the Killers latest record. Except for the distinct, pitchy rasp of Gano’s style, there is nothing about this track that suggests the same sort of fuck it all approach that we heard on 3 or the reckless and passionate punk edge that existed on Why Do Birds Sing?.

By the time you’ve gotten to “Travelling Solves Everything,” you have heard the same formula of fast strumming and yelling holler-backs from the band at least three times. None of the songs are particularly dark, and they certainly don’t seem to be funny. You might suggest that maybe they’re all grown up now and this is a more serious record. But that’s when you realize that the album is not without its failed attempt at funny, and those sentiments mostly fall flat. “You don’t even look good without your glasses.”

The redeeming qualities are in the consistency of the overall style, but consistency of style has never been a real record mover. “Untrue Love” is straight up depressing as a song, which walks a line just south of ironic enough to make you chuckle — “I hate to hear your voice in person or on the phone/ and I wait to hear that voice that’s not cursing our broken home/ and you never saw how much I love you.

“Issues,” aside from having a catchy chorus, sounds like it could be any small town folk band on the planet. Violent Femmes have always been good at delivering their signature, but maybe in this case absence has made the heart grow colder. It’s difficult to find anything particularly rewarding or repeatable on this record. We’re a long way from “Blister in the Sun” or “Fat.” It’s a confusing record. They walk the line between serious music writers and a reserved whimsy which seems afraid to commit to full-on irony.

Lines like “I wake up and then I jerk/ then I get up and I go to work” are delivered with a seriousness that fails to exploit the sort of edge that came out on numerous previous records. It’s disappointing. Many users will likely buy this record, put it in, nod along with the familiar double-time guitar strumming and boxcar drum patterns, but they’ll find that it lacks anything to hold on to. It’s an album that inspires a particularly ambivalent state of Meh, after which you’ll likely turn it off and simply play “Add it Up” again.

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