Maybe it’s my lingering distaste for anything even tangentially connected to Juno, but something about the Boy Least Likely To’s Law of the Playground just lacks the same boundless charm of its predecessor, The Best Party Ever, or the duo’s phenomenal cover of George Michael’s “Faith.” The challenge for the Boy Least Likely To is the same one faced by acts like Art Brut, Junior Senior, and Hot Chip: developing their one-trick-pony style into a genuine aesthetic rather than reducing it to a gimmick. Playground finds the boys (vocalist and primary lyricist Jof Owen and multi-instrumentalist Peter Hobbs) attempting to accomplish the former with mixed results.
What works best about the project is that Owen has heightened the intensity on the streak of melancholy that runs throughout his songs. Set against a backdrop of banjos, glockenspiels, horns, guiros, and handclaps and ingratiating melodic hooks, a line like “I know I look shiny and bouncy/But I’m all empty inside and I worry that/If I was to just burst suddenly/Then no one would even notice me,” from terrific lead single “A Balloon on a Broken String,” capitalizes on the dichotomy of its form and content. That’s what the duo does so well: balancing the enthusiasm of Yo! Gabba Gabba! with fully realized adult anxieties. “I Keep Myself to Myself” masks its vicious self-loathing with a jaunty melody, while “The Boy with Two Hearts” is a surprisingly mature exploration of how relationships evolve.
When they attempt to incorporate some self-mythologizing on “The Boy Least Likely To Is a Machine” and “The Nature of the Boy Least Likely To,” or when they lean too heavily on either child-like wonder (on “Whiskers”) or less thorny neuroses (on “When Life Gives Me Lemons, I Make Lemonade,” which is both too cutesy and too literal), the results are less effective. While the idea of artistic maturity might seem anathema to the very appeal of the Boy Least Likely To, Playground marks the pair’s awkward first steps toward adulthood.