Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Elite of Just Alright - Underclass Hero

Since I'm titling this series after a line from the title track of Sum 41's fourth album, I thought it would only be fair to kick things off with 2007's Underclass Hero.

Just some background information: Sum 41 started off as a pop punk band who was heavily influenced by the likes of Iron Maiden and the Beastie Boys. Most people are familiar with this incarnation of the band, especially with the popularity of their single Fat Lip. They tightened things up after that, ditching the party anthems and leaving the 80's hair metal tributes limited to b-sides and live performances. By their third album they took a heavier direction with most songs, going as far as to perform a throwback to the hey day of thrash metal. Then their lead guitarist, Dave "Brownsound" Baksh left the band to focus on a more metal-oriented direction while the rest of the band announced they were going back to a more "pop punk" sound.

Underclass Hero is that "pop punk" album.

The only problem was that this was not the same Sum 41 from 2001. They had done a lot of growing up in the six years that passed between the two releases. They had gone on several world tours. They lost a core member in the line-up. They had gotten caught up in the Congo and got trapped in their hotel while a fight had broken out. Deryck Whibley got married. Things had obviously happened that affected the band in many ways, so naturally writing All Killer, No Filler Part 2 would be out of the question.

In all fairness, the album is kind of a mess in a stylistic sense and it does distract from enjoying the album to its fullest extent. Yes it's true that Sum 41 had explored various genres on their previous albums, but they always managed to hold together a feeling of cohesiveness and Underclass Hero lacked just that. One moment, they're aping John Lennon (the title "Underclass Hero" is an homage to "Working Class Hero" but the opening of The Jester literally borrows the melody) and the next they're taking cues from My Chemical Romance, or they'll throw a song at the listener that can really only be described as "Green Day" (who coincidentally released their cover of Working Class Hero as a single the same summer this album was released) and follow it up with a ballad that might as well be the sequel to Hoobastank's The Reason. Being that it is all over the place, it is kind of hard to follow but it does not mean that any of the individual songs are "bad" per se. In fact, I think that Underclass Hero was really only a let down because everyone was expecting the whole thing to sound like Fat Lip, especially after hearing the lead single, Underclass Hero, it was an easy mistake to assume that. The song was a bouncy, energetic tune with a catchy hook and snotty lyrics that only a 19-year-old could relate to (although die-hard fans know that the chorus was originally from a different, unfinished song, which was released as the Chuck b-side, Subject to Change).

In spite of that first single, the rest of the album takes a darker turn. Lyrics about poor parental relationships and wishing political leaders dead drew lots of comparisons to Green Day's American Idiot, although the album is far from a rock opera. There is the concept of despair and feeling lost, confused and angry that runs through most of the tracks, but there are no main characters, there is no story of running away from home and Deryck never sings about becoming the next messiah. And yet Green Day is still probably the comparison to make when it comes to this album, as they're another former pop punk band to make an album that's all over the place stylistically (I'm referring to 1997's nimrod. in case you haven't caught on).

Sum 41 is at their best when they aren't writing slow ballads (with the obvious exception of Pieces) and they managed to write a bunch of catchy, hard-hitting songs for Underclass Hero. March of the Dogs, King of Contradiction, Confusion and Frustration in Modern Times, hell even The Jester is pretty good once you get past the first 20 seconds.  The key thing to remember about this album is that it's not coming from the same band that wrote All Killer, No Filler, but that it is coming from the same band that wrote All Killer, No Filler AND that wrote Chuck. Underclass Hero is not be the pop punk album that everyone was expecting, there's no arguing that. However, Underclass Hero is the pop punk album that we got. And that is why I consider this album to be a part of the Elite of Just Alright.

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