Neotheater: The Hero We Needed

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When AJR’s “I’m Ready” hit the world en masse via Twitter in 2013, the world was not, in fact, ready for what was about to hit us. Six years later, AJR has released their third full-length album, Neotheater. Here’s what’s stayed the same since 2013: AJR is still incredible and creating music that you never want to stop listening to. Here’s what’s changed: instead of making fun, mindless pop songs, AJR is now taking all the Zillenial existential screaming that’s constantly being shoved behind forced smiles and “I’m fines” and setting it to the sickest beats you’ve ever heard. This shift probably because their singer, and youngest of the three brothers who make up the band, only just turned 21, but honestly? It makes their music that much better.

Over the course of this past year, AJR has become one of my favorite bands, even if all of their songs make me want to scream “NO! THAT’S THE THING I’M SENSITIVE ABOUT!” in my best John Mulaney voice. If you took the time to listen to their music, you’d probably feel the same.

Neotheater has 12 songs, each of which hits a little harder and a little differently than the last. The album flows a bit like the soundtrack of a musical, or a Disney movie, especially since it opens and closes with a chorus that immediately conjured memories of “It’s a Small World” and Fantasia in my mind (that same chorus also makes background appearances throughout the album in songs like “100 Bad Days” and “Don’t Throw Out My Legos”). Throughout the album, AJR is constantly twisting on something that feels like a childhood classic as the brothers wrestle with the idea of growing up, and what that means for themselves, their fans, and friends. Welcome to the Neotheater, where the prime entertainment is your life, and you’re left feeling like the punchline more often than the protagonist. Won’t everybody please take their seats?

Neotheater explores, with AJR’s usual genius, the most terrifying thoughts and anxieties we all have around growing up, shifting from youthful optimism to more adult cynicism as the album goes on. The album mainly focuses on themes of an uncertainty and a looming sense of isolation, Secondary themes explore being “left behind,” and the residual imposter syndrome we feel as we try and “keep up,” and balancing that with expectations from our families and other supporters. Here and there, songs touch on the effect of adversity on our lives, and what the world “owes” us (nothing). Only two tracks (“Beats” and “The Entertainment’s Here”) branch off to explore two unique anxieties, otherwise, all of these threads run through one or more songs.

Tying all of these different threads together, the album as a whole has a firmly cohesive sound.

While this is mainly because Neotheater, more than any other of their previous albums, sees AJR really coming into their own and finding their voice as a band, it’s helped along by their love of sampling. Each song from Neotheater borrows bits and pieces of other songs off the album. This allows every song to have a unique sound even as is fits in with everything else on the album. Put simply: the songs are like a family. “Next Up Forever” and “Finale” are twins (they’re very tied together), and the rest are all siblings. Line them up together and you can see how they’re related, but each song works well on its own too.

In spite of all the heavy, hard-hitting lyrics, Neotheater has a bounce to it that’s almost lighthearted in the face of everything. It’s not a fake-laugh-hiding-real-tears situation; AJR’s music hits hardest because of how absolutely genuine it is. The songs aren’t all slow ballads because that’s not how people our age tackle all of our problems. Yes, things suck. Yes, most of us are more cynical than we should be. But if we let all of that get to us, then what’s even the point? This is not to say that every song on Neotheater is an energetic hit; “Turning Out Pt. ii” and “Dear Winter” certainly take a step back a breath a little. And it’s important to note that nearly every song has a small break where the beat does slow down, and things stop moving at such a dizzying pace (usually close to the outro).

I’ve spent nearly the entirety of the week that the album’s been alive listening to it. I would have listened to it continuously, but per “The Entertainment’s Here,” I can’t spend all my time thinking about my purpose on Earth. I tried and my roommate made me stop for the sake of our mental health.

After all of that, though, it’s hard to pick out any one favorite song. The more I listen, the more I find to love, and different songs get stuck in my head on different days and at different times. Even “Beats” and “The Entertainment’s Here”—the two songs that swerve into their own little anxious moment apart from anything else—are dear to me. The latter because it came on while I was trying (and failing) to work on a lab report and my roommate gasped and went “Oh my God, it’s you,” and “Beats” because although it mainly focuses on what AJR must do to become successful, I can also easily extrapolate the themes to my own life. What do I have to do to be successful? Should I be doing more to “guarantee” later success?

It would be easy for me to go through and pick out the lines and lyrics from every song that speak to me and my friends on a nearly cellular level. AJR’s sincerity in Neotheater prevents me from jokingly saying that their music is #relatable, but they have done an incredible job of finding every anxiety, every doubt, that we think isolates us and creating something that makes each of us feel a little less alone, even if I felt a little depressed after my first serious listen because I was forced to confront everything that terrifies me in my life.

Final opinion on the album on a whole is summed up in track 10: “Wow, I’m Not Crazy.” Thanks for making me not feel so alone in all of this, AJR.

Rating: 9/10

Top Songs: “Next Up Forever,” “100 Bad Days,” “Don’t Throw Out My Legos,” “Dear Winter”

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