It never gets better than its opening moments.
Reach a certain age, and listening to pop-punk feels like watching The Goonies for the 1,000th time (or Stand By Me or Say Anything or whatever personal formative from the past that recalls the internal power and optimism of childhood). All off-shoots of punk rely on perpetual motion that the young will always be more able to keep up with, but pop-punk especially, with its sunny guitars, machine gun snare drum rolls, gang-shout vocals and wide platitudes about positivity and triumph in the face of adversity, begs an optimism that usually gets knocked out of a person after a few too many long-lasting hangovers. It breeds a burn-out fandom – the old punker who likes the spirit but has back problems.
Still, when it’s done right, pop-punk isn’t a trip down memory lane; it’s a fully-functioning time machine. “Artificial Confidence,” the best track on Direct Hit!’s first record under Fat Wreck, Wasted Mind, is the kind of punk song that will rip an old person from their aged present and shove them back in time to whenever anything was possible and all struggles were just victories waiting to happen. Maybe it’s the church bells. Maybe it’s the declaration that we’re entering a world of “Mutants and angels and demons and rockets.” Whatever the alchemy, it’ll make you want to do kickflips and shotgun a beer with a person you have a crush on.
There’s an irony to the uplift. Wasted Mind is a concept album of sorts, dealing with the myriad physical and metal effects of heavy drug use. You’ve got your songs about being at the peak of a high (“Accidental Confidence”), songs about crashing out (“Paid in Brains”), songs about being a dick to people while all tripped out (“Was It the Acid?”) and songs reminiscing about how all this drug addiction came about in the first place (“Forced to Sleep,” “Villain Alcoholic”). While the insights aren’t always deep or well-observed, the band’s commitment to its topic yields interesting shades and potentially unintended double-meanings. It all adds up to an ambiguity in the message; Direct Hit! isn’t making a statement one way or the other about whether or not getting all fucked up is a good or a bad idea, but they aren’t blind to its benefits and consequences.
Wasted Mind is ripe with all the hallmarks of Mid-western beer-guzzlin’ punk (tight, melodious guitar hooks, layered vocals favoring a snarl over straight singing), but it takes time to explore different musical avenues. “Paid in Brains” finds vocalist Nick Woods going full-on hardcore screamo while the rest of the band hits a sort of faux-sku bounce, complete with keyboards and horns. “Promised Land,” with its galloping drums, lifting piano and snappy handclaps, sounds like an American Idiot-era Green Day B-side. “Another Dimension” is all muted guitar riffs and keyboard melodies, making it sound like Los Campesinos! with a mohawk. All these touches give the record a variance that keeps it from sounding formulaic.
For all Wasted Mind’s charms, it never gets better than its opening moments. In that first three minutes, Direct Hit! make the kind of youth-first, “fuck you” mission statement that will keep generations of teenagers grasping power chords for years. It’s right there in the lyrics, too. “Fuck you man/ I got this.” You and me both, brother.