Three years ago, Ryan Tedder’s OneRepublic didn’t have a record deal, having been unceremoniously dumped by Columbia before they even got to cut their first album. But Tedder’s luck changed halfway through 2007: First he penned and produced Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love,” then, as though one inescapable hit weren’t enough, OneRepublic’s “Apologize” (with Timbaland) made its own phenomenal run up the Billboard charts. Since then Tedder has become a brand unto his own, tossing off hit singles for the likes of Hilary Duff, Natasha Bedingfield, and Beyoncé.
If you thought all that success went to Tedder’s head, Waking Up wastes no time confirming those suspicions. It’s either overreach born out of overconfidence, or else a desperate attempt to prove that he saved his biggest numbers for his own act, but either way, every track on this album is spit-polished and super-sized—radio-rock platitudes jacked up on an arena-rock budget. Take lead single “All the Right Moves,” which isn’t exactly master-class pop in its radio incarnation, but as it appears on Waking Up, it’s nothing short of disastrous: Album opener “Made for You” turns out to be a glorified intro to the single, petering out into a schmaltzy string arrangement after two minutes of hookless melodrama. At that point, the drum track for “Moves” drops in and Tedder begins not-quite-singing-not-quite-rapping the chorus, with about zero sense of rhythm. Then, in what one might charitably interpret as homage to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” OneRepublic trots out a children’s choir to sing the chorus in falsetto—all this before the song proper even officially starts. An organ intro and a programmed drumbeat later, Tedder’s doing his best Justin Timberlake impression, and by the end, the whole band has joined in for a grating round of call-and-response.
With the big set piece out of the way so early on, one might hope that the band, having exorcized their stadium-scale ambitions, would show a little more restraint. No such luck. Take any track on the album, and you’ll find a potentially decent song buried under tacky studio gimmicks and blustery arena-rock posturing. For “Secrets” and “All This Time,” that means weepy string arrangements that don’t so much augment the main melodies as run artlessly over them. On about half the tracks, OneRepublic repeats the gang-vocals shtick from “Moves,” no doubt hoping that, with their voices combined, they can deliver the surging choruses that lie well outside of Tedder’s limited range. Irritating as that trick becomes, it may be preferable to the alternative: On the title track, Tedder actually tries to nail a chorus right ought of the U2 songbook and the result is uncannily like hearing “With or Without You” at karaoke night. When not pinching from that band, OneRepublic sometimes tries to be Radiohead, which, as indicated by “Missing Person 1 & 2,” means washing out all melodies, vocal and instrumental, in strange and annoying electronic effects. If these guys have taken anything from their admittedly ambitious choice of role models, it’s only their sense of grandeur, none of their subtlety or songcraft.
And that’s a real shame. Because the success of Tedder’s outsourced tracks prove that the guy knows how to write a decent pop song. And it’s worth reemphasizing that most of the material on Waking Up show traces of the better songs that could have been. “Good Life,” for example, pairs a cheery, whistling melody with thudding drums, handclaps, and acoustic guitars, and its verses demonstrate that Tedder is a surprisingly agile vocalist when he isn’t trying to be Bono. But even that song’s simple pleasures eventually get crowded out by overdubs and electronic squiggles. Conceivably, dialing down the pomp-rock theatrics could’ve left a passable pop-rock record in the vein of Death Cab for Cutie or the Shins—inferior to those artists’ best output, to be sure, but with plenty of redeeming moments.
Even that’s being charitable though, because the real difficulty is that—beneath all of the studio polish, strings, and sing-alongs—OneRepublic’s music just isn’t that interesting. If you want glossy, emotive pop, there’s CW-certified acts like Snow Patrol. And if it’s slightly proggy but ultimately safe pop-rock you crave, why not opt for Muse or MGMT? Ultimately, OneRepublic takes what all of those bands already do and pushes it to an even lower common denominator of slick, disposable melodrama. I don’t know if anyone’s ever complained about Coldplay being too edgy, but if so, Waking Up could be their dream come true.