Daughtry’s third album, Break the Spell, reaffirms that the band is defined by competence rather than ambition or creativity, by rote expressions of overwrought emotions rather than insight or depth. As principal songwriter and lyricist for the band, Chris Daughtry deserves the blame for the album’s utter lack of substance; he’s proven himself incapable of writing a coherent, compelling narrative or of turning a phrase that isn’t based on an obvious, threadbare cliché.
Break the Spell opens with “Renegade,” an uptempo number straight out of Bon Jovi’s ‘80s-era playbook, on which Daughtry wails about wanting to “Break out of this town like a renegade/Can’t wait another minute/I’m right here ready to run,” without having the wherewithal to give any kind of actual backstory to make that desire more than an empty gesture. It’s to his credit in a perverse and kind of sad way that he sings it with such forceful conviction, but that conviction also results in a grown man shouting out a simile worthy of a brighter-than-average third-grader: “Don’t wanna go down like the setting sun.” To that end, “Renegade” and songs like “Losing My Mind,” “Rescue Me,” and the unbearably maudlin “Gone Too Soon” (a song about the death of a child that aims for sincerity but is simply cloying and didactic, so be sure to look for a cover of it on the next Martina McBride album) make it clear that he’s killing himself trying to sell something that no one should really be so invested in.
Of course, Daughtry’s sales stats tell a far different story. Though their sophomore effort, Leave This Town, sold just over a quarter of what its predecessor did, Daughtry still moves more units than a highly touted and frequently written-about acts like Bon Iver or Lykke Li ever will. Even if the remainder of Break the Spell suggests that it was entirely by accident, Daughtry does manage to stumble into a bit of auto-critique on the otherwise banal “Outta My Head.” Most of the song’s chorus (“Ain’t no doubt about it/I can’t live without it/Try to forget you/But I can’t get you outta my head”) is as vapid as everything else he’s written, but when he sings, “Just when I think you’re gone/You come back and turn it on/Just like a simple song/And I can’t get it outta my head,” he does speak to his band’s primary appeal: their simplicity.
On “Outta My Head” and single “Crawling Back to You,” Daughtry constructs sturdy, straightforward melodies and hooks that adhere to time-tested pop conventions, and the band performs those melodies with workmanlike precision. There’s nothing in their repertoire that distinguishes them from 3 Doors Down or Staind, and any assembled crew of anonymous session musicians could replicate Break the Spell without breaking much of a sweat. But that lack of a distinctive style or voice also means that Daughtry isn’t pulling focus from the simple and effective construction of their songs, which is pretty much the only thing they do well. On Break the Spell, the band doesn’t get distracted by such niceties as arrangements that might show off more impressive technical chops or words that actually make sense and have substantive meaning in the order in which they’ve been written. All credit to Daughtry, then, for figuring out how to sell big based on their actual strengths, however limited they may be.