With Chris Daughtry’s first album, the inexplicably caps-locked DAUGHTRY, authenticity was the question du jour: Could an American Idol also-ran, one uninspiring enough to be bested by twitchy soul man Taylor Hicks, front a genuine-article rock band? If you’ll take your answer in the form of a Billboard chart, DAUGHTRY was a coup for the not-quite-Idol. While sounding indistinguishable from faceless radio rockers like Staind, Hoobastank, and Fuel, Daughtry has outsold its obvious influences by massive margins, their debut’s quintuple-platinum certification a glittery mathematical reminder that the band’s act has caught on in an era when rock bands rarely do. When so many hot young bands are releasing albums that are more blogged about than bought, Daughtry sells albums like the biggest rock band in the world.
Perhaps aware of their seismic crossover appeal, Daughtry opens their sophomore effort, Leave This Town, with all systems set to “anthemic,” and, with the exception of a couple of acoustic ballads, they stay in that mode for the entirety of the album. Chris attempts to make every song a Big Statement, intoning dead-serious verses while the band gathers momentum behind him, inevitably culminating in a soaring chorus which, as a rule, will be repeated four times before the song ends. Brazenly—almost aggressively—artless in their approach to songcraft, Daughtry will surely draw its defenders from the “turn off your brain and have fun” camp, but Leave This Town is manifestly not a “fun” album. Daughtry’s arena-scale ambitions can, apparently, only be fulfilled by rock of the most emotionally expressive variety, yielding lots of grim-faced confessions, clumsy attempts at introspection, and choruses drenched in its namesake’s tortured howl.
What the band proves is that expressing emotion and evoking it are fundamentally two different crafts. To ensure that every mook in the stadium can pump his or her fist along, Chris employs blandly general lyrics, divorced from any of the particularistic observation or reflection that generates real emotional heft. On the opening track, “You Don’t Belong,” Daughtry sings what isn’t so much a verse as a collection of unrelated statements that happen to appear in the same minute of a song: “No, you don’t belong to me, I think you lied to me/And with my back against this wall, it’s hard to be strong/No, you’d tell me anything, look what you’ve done to me/Still, I tell myself that tomorrow you’ll be long gone.” Significantly, it’s the only song Chris penned on his own.
The co-writing credits for the 11 songs that follow read like a who’s-who of lowest-common-denominator radio-rock, with luminaries from such risible acts as Nickelback, Three Days Grace, and Lifehouse contributing. It seems absurd to say that someone like Chad Kroeger or Ben Moody has a distinctive lyrical voice, but compared to Chris’s general-to-the-point-of-meaningless confessions, Kroeger’s tough-guy breakup drama (“No Surprise”) and Moody’s tears-and-roses gothica (“Open Up Your Eyes”) seem rich. That doesn’t mean the songs are better; in fact, Moody may deserve an award for contributing what, on an album as straining as Leave This Town, is the worst song by a fairly large margin. “Open Up Your Eyes” is embarrassingly overwrought, with Chris yowling clichés (“Welcome to the first day of your life/Just open up your eyes”) between verses about grieving and the afterlife.
That the material on Leave This Town is clearly so meaningful to Chris makes the experience worse: The songs end up being turgid in spite of what appears to be a substantial emotional investment on the performer’s part. It might all be easier to take if the band were simply mercenary about performing bad songs for giant heaps of money, but again, it all comes back to authenticity. Chris Daughtry has a real band that plays really serious songs, which are, almost without exception, really, really bad.