To say that Max Bemis of Say Anything is a ‘conflicted young man’ would be like calling Godzilla ‘a big lizard’ – the description is fitting, just not nearly encompassing enough. Bemis essentially serves as the entirety of the band; in addition to being the songwriter, he’s also responsible for the singing (yelling?), guitar, bass, and keyboard tracks. For Bemis, the talent comes with high costs, as a series of nervous breakdowns and stress-related mental failings have left him incapacitated at times during the last few years.
Much like Lloyd Dobler from the band’s namesake Cameron Crowe flick, …Is a Real Boy languishes in underdog territory. Using Saves the Day, Weezer, Pavement, and Fugazi as reference points, Bemis has crafted the ultimate outcast’s high school soundtrack. Tight, genre-stretching songs that express ranges of emotions stop repeatedly on dimes for humorously self-referential, self-deprecating sound bytes (on one track, he follows up the chorus by barking out, “Alright, we’re gonna do it again for ya now” before re-launching straight back into the chorus in a detached, giggle-inducing moment). The end result is a glorious collage of stark musical moodiness. The most favorable comparison to make is that Say Anything’s intense ramblings rattle off like an emo little brother to The Hold Steady.
Bemis’s feelings are dark, and the humor he laces them with is just as morbid – though it disappears quickly. In the disturbingly upbeat “Every Man Has a Molly,” he hilariously howls for an ex-girlfriend who didn’t appreciate being song fodder (“You goddamn kids had best be gracious with the merch money you spend / Because for you, I won’t ever have rough sex with Molly Connolly again”); two minutes later, the humor’s gone as he hollers, “I’ll kill myself thinking about the things that you did to me / I’ll kill myself!”
Bipolar emotional nature aside, …Is a Real Boy rocks. “The Writing South” is a fantastic piece of sloppy rock, complete with what will hopefully become this summer’s sing-along catchphrase, “Hey hey hey, come pollinate me!” “Woe” is so brooding that Chris Carrabba has apparently taken to covering it live under his Dashboard Confessional guise. “Admit It!” weaves random anti-hipster interstitials in amongst pointed lyrics (“You’re free to whine / It will not get you far / I do just fine with my car and my guitar”); the guitars chug around before the song soars off to a slowed-down climax (“When I’m dead, I’ll rest / I’ll lay still”).
The finest moment of the album itself is the sprawling dirge “Yellow Cat (Slash) Red Cat,” which serves as the unofficial answer to the rhetorical question, ‘what would a Conor Oberst/Rivers Cuomo collaboration sound like?’ The verses meander through quirks of various characters, while the chorus sums up the lyrical gist of the album as a whole (“These are my friends / This is who they have been for always / These are my days / This is how they stay / This is who they remain forever / This is how we stay”).
While the disc itself is stellar from start to finish, there’s some additional worthwhile material on the bonus EP, …Was a Real Boy. It’s a tough sell to claim that the best song in the collection may be in the bonus collection. However, EP opener “Wow, I Can Get Sexual, Too” is a simple, electronic, ass-shaking groover with a tragically catchy chorus (“I called her on the phone and she touched herself”) and infinite ‘CD program on repeat’ replay potential; LCD Soundsystem, eat your heart out. From there, the EP basically serves as an extension of the album, both lyrically (one song is titled “I Will Never Write an Obligatory Song About Being on the Road and Missing Someone”) and musically, with the standout track being the surprisingly bluesy and aggressive “Most Beautiful Plague.”
Poor Max Bemis. He’s written and performed this loosely-interpreted concept album about becoming a man (and how many girls you need to sleep with to get there), and he’s done so with gusto. Both lyrically and musically, …Is a Real Boy is brilliant as it wallows amongst its own self-pity and ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ humor. Bemis has the market cornered on brutally honest, low-brow, high-sentiment poetry with this album. At a mere 21, he’s got an unusually sharp grasp on his trade; but the question is, does his madness fuel his brilliance or vice versa? Here’s hoping that Bemis never has to choose between the two.