It does not take more than a minute for fun.’s new album, Some Nights, to emerge with huge choral fanfare, punctuated with bits of opera, as singer Nate Ruess wails like an admittedly impressive Freddie Mercury impersonator.
The entire album, in fact, plays like a lost collection of Queen B-Sides, dug up from a musty studio in the back roads of England.
But as Some Nights proceeds, song after song, it becomes more and more evident that those lost tapes would be much better served if they had remained collecting dust.
fun. is the indie pop project of Nate Ruess (formerly of The Format) and a few friends, a New York group whose very name suggests kitschy exuberance.
Such a suggestion is incredibly accurate, to the point of somewhat tempering the listening experience – “I’m listening to ‘fun.’! Ha ha! Get it?!” Given that their audience is bubble-gum pop aficionados, the amount of Queen (among other things) that they wear on their sleeves is a peculiar thing.
Some Nights opens with a vocal harmony hook of easy ’70s vintage, as the song pounds along with huge, military-esque drums and piano stabs, distorted guitar finding its way into the mix in brief, uncomfortable bits until it erupts in a solo.
Admittedly, the song has an undeniable swing to it, a palpable and honest energy, but somewhere between its bombast and infectious thump is its sickly sweet core, like garlic cloves interspersed in a bowl of caramels.
If this metaphor is helpful, the rest of Some Nights is much more garlic than candy. Horns, more guitar solos, vapid refrains and indie-rock clichés that died in the mid-80s all dot the subsequent songs.
Every song occupies an awkward middle-point, attempting to be more turgid than it already is, and, at the same time, retracting from its own turgidity in a terrible embarrassment.
The lyrics oscillate between overblown maxims (“We are young!” and “It gets better!” and “Carry on!”), insincere nostalgia and kitschy half-sarcastic references to hanging out with friends and girls and so forth.
That sort of juxtaposition does not limit itself to lyrical content – for the bittersweet “All Alright” and the tongue-in-cheek eight-bit-infused jangle of “All Alone” appear right next to each other.
There is nothing wrong with variety, but the mixture here embodies a sort of awkward ambiguity, where fun. precisely takes themselves too seriously and is exposed as the farce that it is.
Yet, these tracks by themselves would sound formulaic – loud and “fun” in the most unimaginative way.
The problem with this album is roughly that it is resurrecting stadium rock in all the wrong places – for the wrong people.
The crux of stadium rock is a sort of escapism – a larger than life persona and sound and experience that subsumes the boredom of bourgeois society if only for a night, for a moment, in a rush of chorus and reverb.
The crux of bubble-gum indie-pop is a sort of sublimated aesthetic – something like “the beautiful in everyday life” or some other such nonsense. This is the stuff that colors your iPod commercials and Starbucks lounges (and the car rides between these).
There is a sort of awkward crossover between these two, the larger-than-life and the subtly, smilingly mundane.
At least on their own they can be enjoyed with a modicum, if not with irony and suspended-disbelief. Such a thing is impossible here.
Queen had their time and much of the time after that has been full of imitators. But what could be worse than an insincere grasp at retro?
Trying to force that retro(active) impulse into a foreign sound. This is exactly what Some Nights accomplishes, effectively injecting Queen into Foster the People with a dirty syringe.