Music Review: AMERICA by Thirty Seconds to Mars (Polydor)

30SecondsToMars-America“Your ears start bleeding” when one cranks modern music up to 11, Thirty Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto observed to Rolling Stone‘s Brian Hiatt. He has a point — modern music production methods tend to lean towards loud, busy and highly-compressed recording. “It used to be pleasurable to crank up Zeppelin or Nirvana to 12 in your car,” he continued. “Now everyone would complain — it’s so piercing, so bright.”

This observation struck me as a little odd coming from Leto: Thirty Seconds to Mars is one of the most melodramatic, cinematic rock bands working today: pretty much the whole of their This Is War album, for example, is operatic and bombastic. The concern about modern production, and the “brightness” of contemporary songs is popular among ‘purists’ and classic rock fans — it’s common to see comparisons of sounds wave graphs (which I admit is extremely nerdy) of Beatles recordings with those of recent singles. This concern seems to have informed Thirty Seconds to Mars’s America throughout.

I’ve been listening to Thirty Seconds to Mars since their debut album (“Capricorn” was a favourite). Initially intrigued because so often movie stars who venture into music are rarely as successful, I was impressed by the musical ability, tunes, bombast, and… well, melodrama. When listening to Thirty Seconds to Mars, it was difficult to not be put in mind of Wayne’s World and Mike Myers’s character’s highest musical compliment: Jared Leto can really wail. On America, though, the singer’s signature wail is kept very much in check.

“Walk on Water”, lead single and first track on the album, offers many of the qualities fans of the band have come to expect, only dialled down. It’s a good song, but feels a little restrained — as if Leto’s natural instinct to Go Bigger were just about reined in. A general sense of minimalism pervades the album, something I never expected from this band.

“Monolith”, a minute-and-a-half interlude track, sounds like the soundtrack to an upcoming Marvel movie (just one step back from the now-ubiquitous bwaaaah! one finds in almost all trailers, now). “Love is Madness” (featuring Halsey) and “Dawn Will Rise” are slower-tempo tunes. The latter seemed to promise a crescendo towards the end, but everything remained reined in and more chill. In fact, the album seems to slow down as it progresses. I liked “Love is Madness” more with each listen, and appreciated more the juxtaposition of Halsey’s lighter vocals and Leto’s ‘wail’ (yes, I enjoy that descriptor) and crunchy guitars.

“Hail to the Victor”, an interesting song that worms its way into your consciousness, is indicative of the greater interest in EDM options and more nuanced production, another aspect discussed in the aforementioned Rolling Stone Q&A: “I’ve always loved that mix [of rock and electronic elements], whether it’s Depeche Mode, or the Who using synthesizers, or Pink Floyd using whatever technology to get where the song needed to go.” This is also clearly evident on “One Track Mind” (feat. A$AP Rocky), a very good example of the way in which rock and EDM can be blended together to make an interesting song. However, the elements used in this song feel… recycled. The higher-note instrumental squeals (I don’t know the correct term, I’m sorry), for example, seem to have been used on countless recent singles from a variety of artists. As a result, this genre mashing comes across as amateurish, because the band hasn’t innovated as much as they could have — instead seeming to have reached not particularly far into EDM for elements to incorporate.

I was surprised by “Dangerous Night” which, just after the mid-way point, morphed musically close to Fall Out Boy territory — the deeper, rounded bass groove of “Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea”, for example, from Mania. [I’ll review this album soon, too.]

The stripped-down “Remedy” was interesting, devoid of all of the bombast one has come to expect from the band. Leto’s vocals don’t sound like him at all, either, with a deeper delivery and just a hint of a drawl. I couldn’t quite place who might have inspired this one, unfortunately. After a low-key beginning, “Live Like a Dream” features some of the crowd chants that the band has always liked to include on their albums.

It’s a good album, but I’m not really sure what I think overall. I can’t fault the musicianship, nor the production. I like it when favourite bands and artists experiment, trying new sounds and styles (it keeps things interesting). America felt like quite a departure for Thirty Seconds to Mars, while remaining pretty familiar and obviously them. I’m not sure how long-time fans of the band will receive it — the melodrama of Thirty Seconds to Mars’s music is, after all, one of the reasons we listen to them. It’s possible many will find this album just a little bit boring. As it is, I guess Thirty Seconds to Mars have written their easy-listening album.

Update (April 18th): I’ve been listening to the album on pretty heavy-rotation since writing this review. It has really grown on me. With each new listen, one notices more of the subtleties in composition and sounds. My comments about the lack of bombast are still true, but I think this is a far more accomplished album than I initially thought. (I am now reminded of the weaknesses of music reviewing, when one wants to get a post up as soon as possible.) “Hail to the Victor” has improved with each new listen, too, and has become maybe my favourite cut from the album.

Here’s the video for “Walk on Water”:

America tracklist:

  1. Walk on Water
  2. Dangerous Night
  3. Rescue Me
  4. One Track Mind [feat. A$AP Rocky]
  5. Monolith
  6. Love is Madness [feat. Halsey]
  7. Great Wide Open
  8. Hail to the Victor
  9. Dawn Will Rise
  10. Remedy
  11. Live Like a Dream
  12. Rider

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