Max Bemis has more in common with the misanthropic cult comedian Bill Hicks than with any of the other emo-pop purveyors he’s rubbed elbows with as the frontman for Say Anything; his sharply worded tirades and uncomfortably honest self-portraits have made him one of the most compelling personalities to emerge from the last decade’s glut of mall-punk. Happily enough, Say Anything has also avoided sounding like a run-of-the-mill Warped Tour act, fusing peppy pop punk with aspects of prog and indie for what ultimately comes across more like an exceptionally ill-tempered Pavement than anyone you’d see touring with Weezer or Blink-182. Anarchy, My Dear is one of the band’s strongest musical statements to date, thanks to its surfeit of catchy guitar leads and genuinely unpredictable song structures, though, as always, the band rocks at about half the intensity they’d need if they wanted to serve as anything more than a backing track for their cantankerous loose cannon of a singer.
A lot of what you need to know about Bemis is encapsulated in the fact that one of his most popular songs, “Admit It,” from 2004’s ...Is a Real Boy, is a bitter, self-righteous, minimally musical and totally warranted rant against judgmental hipster posturing. Sadly, as much of what you need to know about Anarchy, My Dear is encapsulated in the fact that it contains a sequel to that song, aptly named “Admit It Again,” a rehash that doesn’t develop the original thesis—that we’re living through a high school psychodrama in which the nerds have found a way to bully the jocks using the currency of cool—and instead simply repeats it.
In the intervening years, “hipster” has become one of the most ubiquitous and overworked buzzwords of the new-media generation, with nearly everyone agreeing that we’re pretty much over hipsters, whoever they are and whatever their distinguishing attributes may be. That alone would make Bemis’s decision to continue his crusade suspect. But where it makes sense for a young rock band working in a disreputable genre to take aim at critics and would-be kingmakers on their debut, it’s disheartening to hear the same group return after eight years to the same whipping post. Despite his protests, the approval of these so-called elitists must really matter to Bemis, otherwise he’d be content with the fans (and many glowing reviews) his band has earned instead of haranguing one set of holdouts for their indifference.
Still, if Bemis is unwilling to bury the hatchet, he should at least learn how to wield it. The biggest problem with “Admit It Again,” and Anarchy, My Dear as a whole, is that its smart-ass barbs aren’t aimed with the kind of precision that separates biting wit from regular old meanness. Bemis scores points when he challenges fans who liked his band in high school to stop claiming they “were reared on the Stooges,” and the line about not wanting to “hear about how the latest Rihanna single is a post-modern masterpiece” is one I can happily co-sign. But when the rant-song reaches its climax, we’re left with blunt insights that just don’t sound grounded in reality. “It’s about how you seek to control minds,” Bemis screams, “just to appease what you’ve always lacked!” Like I said, we’ve all got our reasons to hate on hipsters, but does anyone actually think the people who write for Vice or Pitchfork are after mind control? And I don’t know what’s worse: to know that you “forfeited your own anti-cred by buying into your own dubious hype,” or to be the type of person to whom that accusation is either comprehensible or worrying.
It’s incisiveness that Bemis lacks, and that extends from his most militant dissertations to his sincerest stabs at confessional pop. “Say Anything” is an awkward attempt to translate Bemis’s dark humor into something like a conventional love song, with Bemis tossing off declarations of devotion like “Condemn my race to genocide if it meant that I could lay with you” (Bemis is Jewish, and his grandparents were Holocaust survivors), or an even more colorful line where he says he’d rather be shot in the knees by Satan than be unfaithful. On “So Good,” he fantasizes about destroying the world and remaking it as a place where he might have a shot with an inaccessible hottie. Obviously Bemis thinks that couching his unrequited love songs in such grandiose terms conveys the purity of his feelings, but it actually serves to reinforce how little emotion he’s willing to wager. A person who can’t write a love song without detouring into cartoonish torture fantasies is a person who has more experience writing witty songs about love than being in it.