“It’s been a good year / A good new beginning,” Justin Pierre croons on the opening track of Motion City Soundtrack’s new album, My Dinosaur Life. “I’m through with the old school / So let’s commence the winning.” Not a bad sentiment for a gray and gloomy January, eh? “I’ve been a good little worker bee,” he wheedles, “I deserve a gold star.”
Irony alert! You can wait forever for those gold stars, loser. Motion City Soundtrack totally gets that; in fact, it’s the cornerstone of the worldview on My Dinosaur Life, an irony-laced ode to disappointment and the extinction of youthful dreams. Motion City Soundtrack have had their share of gold stars, of course – their two previous albums, 2006’s Commit This To Memory and 2007’s Even If It Kills Me, were indie bestsellers heaped with media acclaim, and with My Dinosaur Life they are now officially major-label artists. But as those opening lines prove, success hasn’t taken the edge off the raging anxiety that has always been a major factor in their appeal.
With Blink 182’s Mark Hoppus as producer, My Dinosaur Life keeps the energy level high, with blasts of thrashing guitars and hyperkinetic drums, buzzed up with moog synthesizers. Yet Motion City Soundtrack’s brand of pop-punk is fueled more by angst than by anger. Their songs soar with melodies, catchy hooks, yearning vocals, and — most of all – memorably snarky lyrics, sprinkled with savvy cultural references. (Flashback to early Elvis Costello.)
The challenge for this album was not only to resist major-label slickness; it was also to shift from adolescent insecurity — that indie-emo staple emotion — into depicting the self-doubt of adult slackerhood. Motion City Soundtrack is ancient in indie-band years, having been founded in Minneapolis 13 years ago; its members are now in their early 30s. Growing old gracefully just doesn’t seem to be in the cards, though. Consider for example the protagonist of “Her Words Destroyed My Planet,” as he protests: “Got a job at Common Grounds / I finally shaved off that beard / Sold my X-Box to Jimmy down the street / I even stopped smoking weed / I’m taking an online course / I’m learning Japanese.” He’s cleaned up his act, and life still sucks. What NOW?
There’s an interesting tension between the brash assault of their sound and the vulnerable confessional lyrics, in songs like “A Lifeless Ordinary” (“I always knew I had the answer / But I never understood the question”) or the winsome “Stand Too Close” (“I’m afraid I tend to disappear / Into an anxious state when you are near”). Things ramp up to full-fledged panic on songs like “Hysteria,” with its frantic refrain “a total calamity, the choices I have made.” In the boppy “Delirium,” the singer swears off pharmaceuticals (a reference to Pierre’s past substance abuse), yet admits that “There’s a voice, there’s a voice, there’s a voice in my head / It’s rather soothing and it tells me that I’m better off dead.” That vital emotive quality depends more than anything on Pierre’s considerable vocal gifts – his broad range, from earnest tenor to panic-struck falsetto, and his superb ear for tricky melodic intervals.
I was disappointed by the album’s first single, “Disappear,” with its derivative R.E.M.-like minor key riffs and rat-tat-tat lyrics. But the band successfully extends its sound on other tracks, like the jangly, surreal “Pulp Fiction,” with its images of sensory assault (“the plot sucks but the killings are gorgeous”), and the Ben Folds-ish “Skin and Bones,” a plangent meditation on the universe (“What if there’s nothing more to us / We’re just carbon-based, we’re just pixie dust”). The true MCS touch comes in that song’s wistful refrain: “Will we be all right, left alone at night?” No pomposity, no preachiness, just heartfelt longing for reassurance in an uncertain and dangerous world. In the end, isn’t that what we all want?