When adults who fancy themselves serious artists decide they want to say something about childhood, I expect contrivance. We were all kids once, but childhoods are the special, scare-quoted province of neurotics and their analysts, and so art about childhood is more likely to give a petulant prehistory of a specific adult’s own issues than to say anything at all about what kids do or feel. Spike Jonze’s improbably joyless Where the Wild Things Are was stuffed with scenes where kids and monsters rapped about their existential anxieties, while Arcade Fire is often at their least convincing when they wail about “the kids” or “us kids,” as though everyone under the age of majority belonged to one mysterious tribe. Plain White T’s does not take themselves especially seriously, and so I ventured to hope that Wonders of the Younger, a carnival-themed concept album about, yes, childhood, might actually work. After all, playing in a pop-emo band is about as close as one can get to being a kid forever.
Take the opener “Irrational Anthem.” On one hand, I think an actual kid would enjoy the song. Its chanted chorus goes, “We don’t care if they don’t understand us/This is our irrational anthem,” and it sounds like the type of thing a bunch of kids would sing at summer camp. But how many summer-camp tunes can you think of that you’d actually want to hear on the radio? A healthy chunk of the album follows in that vein, the problem being that the band seems to forget the difference between giving their songs hooks and just mercilessly wedging them into their listeners’ heads. There’s a chorus about a “bah bah-bah-bah bah-bah broken record” (on “Broken Record”), and another where the whole band sings, “I want to have a party in the middle of the street” (“Cirque Dans La Rue”). Memorable in their own right while lacking a strong melody, these kinds of songs will either endear themselves to you or drive you absolutely crazy.
One of the few respected rock bands that has mined this territory successfully is They Might Be Giants; most of their work takes kids music as a touchstone, and they’ve also done a couple of albums of educational tunes for children. Crucially, though, neither incarnation of TMBG breaks character. Their music might not be “serious,” but, at the same time, the band isn’t bullshitting you. But Plain White T’s only half-commit: There are plenty of “real” songs on Wonders of the Younger, and the more simplistic sing-alongs sound boorish and annoying in their company. When “The Rhythm of Love” chimes in with its jangly, AOR-ready acoustics, you’ll have no choice but to look back on the previous three tracks and ask, “Wait, were they bullshitting me?”
Worst of all are the in-betweens, the chunky-riffed pop-rock numbers that sound like only-slightly-dumber variations of songs by mall-punk mainstays like the Starting Line or Yellowcard. Or the not-even-close-to-creepy “Killers,” which stretches its lyrical conceit to ludicrous extremes until singer Tom Higgenson asks, “If I was the scariest monster you ever seen/Would you still love me?” These songs don’t read as for-kids, or even as homages to kids music. They just sound juvenile in the familiar, perpetually adolescent style so common to their genre.
Ultimately, it’s that style of songwriting that Plain White T’s will have to grow out of if they’re ever going to make an album that capitalizes on their considerable pop smarts. Sugary pop-emo is what got the band started well over a decade ago, but it’s not what they’re best at, nor is it responsible for the band’s current success (that would be their out-of-nowhere hit, “Hey There, Delilah,” a sharply written ballad that owed nothing to the band’s Warped Tour lineage). And, to be sure, there are songs on Wonders of the Younger that are every bit as good. “Rhythm of Love” is one, another is “Make It Up as You Go,” a kinetic power-pop tune featuring a raucous guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from Sloan or Fountains of Wayne.
The latter is also the song that does best by the record’s inconsistently observed concept, since its chorus imagines the onset of adulthood as something more exciting than angst-inducing. Hopefully, this album-length mess of a therapy session has resolved whatever issues the band has with their inner-children, leaving them free too abandon their adolescent emo selves behind and reinvent themselves as adults. It’s like the saying on “Make It Up”: “Your future’s wide open, nothing’s written in stone.”