5 Seconds of Summer Are More Pop Than Punk on ‘Sounds Good Feels Good’
5 Seconds of Summer got a significant boost in visibility when One Direction brought the four-piece on as their opening act for two consecutive world tours. After winning over the more alt-leaning members of the boyband's fan base, 5SOS did the unthinkable: They successfully edged out of One Direction's mammoth shadow, making waves on Top 40 radio with the guitar-driven "She Looks So Perfect." Their success effectively proved that pop-punk-lite will always have a place within teen culture, so long as emotional kids with a penchant for pop packaged in a neat, faux-non-conformist bubble continue to exist.
So it is on Sounds Good Feels Good, the Australian band's punchy sophomore album. Produced by John Feldmann (Good Charlotte, All Time Low, Panic! at the Disco), Sounds Good Feels Good picks up right where 5SOS' self-titled debut left off, delivering a cohesive collection of polished hits dressed with just enough distortion and bite to appeal to the minimally subversive.
And there's nothing wrong with that. By now, 5SOS have a feel for what they're good at -- writing catchy songs that contain a somewhat noncommittal message of understanding the misunderstood -- and they do it well. Intent on taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by their sudden rise in the pop-punk sphere, the band partnered with notable scene vets this time around: All Time Low's Alex Gaskarth and Good Charlotte's Joel and Benji Madden all have writing credits here.
And sure, the Madden brothers know how to write a good pop song with rousing gang vocals and fist-pumping jocularity. But 5SOS don’t need them to write a good song, and the collaborations with so many guest writers may have been to the album’s overall detriment.
Sounds Good Feels Good is an obvious amalgamation of all of 5SOS’ biggest musical influences, and it sees the band occasionally sacrifice their own brand of feel-good pop-rock to imitate their predecessors: “Permanent Vacation” sounds like a heavy-handed and repurposed, but ultimately less biting, version of Green Day’s “Longview,” while the album's second single “Hey Everybody!” channels "Hungry Like The Wolf" so overtly that Duran Duran are credited as writers on the track, perhaps to offset a possible future lawsuit. Even The Beatles make their way onto the album, with "The Girl Who Cried Wolf" vaguely recalling the "Across The Universe" vocal melody, minus the wistful, punch-drunk appeal of the original, before the track shifts into a clunky chorus that ends in misplaced staccato.
While the album's major thematic elements focus largely on encouragement and "getting through the tough times," its darkest places are where 5 Seconds of Summer feel the most genuine. The mournful “Jet Black Heart” demonstrates a kind of maturity that soars far above anything found on the group's debut, with ringing guitars and introspective lyrics (“Maybe there’s nothing after midnight that could make you stay”) topping off the desolate track. Evanescence's David Hodges co-wrote on that one, and it's a shame he didn't stick around for more.
Still, there's more than one genuine hit here, with "Catch Fire" an obvious standout track. With its jangling guitars, infectious vocal melody and hard-hitting drums, it's a song that begs for its rightful place on pop radio, or at the very least as a B-side to Coldplay's 2011 rock opera Mylo Xyloto. "Waste The Night," meanwhile, is an electro-pop confection that sees a vocal intensity perfectly echoing the song's theme of fidgety desperation. It nearly gets it right, but in a puzzling move the track veers off into an unnecessary musical diatribe by its tail-end when it segues into a clumsy outro that feels like an unintended mistake.
It should also be noted that drummer Ashton Irwin shines on this album -- he hits his kit hard, with eager intensity and precision, like he's equal parts excited and pissed off, often transforming an otherwise dull track into one worthy of a second listen ("Vapor").
Sounds Good Feels Good is not without its anthems, of course, something the quartet is particularly good at -- songs like the commanding "She's Kinda Hot" and the mighty "Money" are guaranteed arena-rock singalongs, while a track like "Fly Away" kicks off with enough of a punch to keep that momentum going live. A more pop-leaning track like "San Francisco" (co-written by Bonnie McKee, the mastermind behind some of the biggest songs to hit radio in the past few years) sounds like it might be better suited for a straight-up pop band, but it's both catchy and wistful enough to earn its place on the album.
Softer tracks, like the ill-suited "Invisible" don't fare as well. The band takes a risk with a sweeping string section, and it's a valiant effort, but the result falls flat and feels more like an obligatory ballad written primarily for the sake of slowing things down. There are a few of these moments on the album (though not many). "Airplanes" has an interesting melody, but the vocal affectations -- as though the band purposely channeled Tom DeLonge a la "I Miss You" -- and cringeworthy lyrics ("Airplanes cut through the clouds / Like angels can fly / We'll never die") demonstrate a cognizance that feels uncomfortably calculated.
It's kind of a running theme on Sounds Good Feels Good, that 5SOS are a little too self-aware in their songwriting. Even their not-so-subtle reference to DC punk outfit Bad Brains in lead single "She's Kinda Hot" ("Sometimes I feel like I'm goin' insane / My neighbor told me that I got bad brains") feels like an overt wink that borders on vulgarity.
Lyrically, the songs are appealing in their generalities, as 5SOS often pontificates to its largely teen demographic about a vague sense of Otherness, of relating to the plight of feeling misunderstood without delving too deep into the details. 5SOS' lyrics lack the kind of overwrought poetic specificities that made Fall Out Boy’s lyrics perfect fodder for AIM away messages back in 2006, but it's the type of amorphous storytelling that worked so well for Stephenie Meyer with Twilight -- the listener can comfortably insert him or herself into the narrative, and sometimes that's enough.
On "Catch Fire," they sing, "I can't change the world / But maybe I'll change your mind." Because in the end, that's kind of the point, isn't it? 5 Seconds of Summer is not the type of band to change the face of music, and they're perfectly content in owning that. But they also know the kind of power they wield among their fans, this idea of forming a unified community of misfits -- and it just so happens that 5SOS have a perfectly suitable soundtrack for their new revolution.
See Michael Clifford's Various Hair Colors