Of Men and Angels would be a crappy enough title for any record, but it’s an especially poor choice for the Rocket Summer’s latest: Portentous and self-serious, it bears zero relation to the 15 tracks of bright-eyed pop to which it’s affixed. Any fear that Stephen Bryce Avary, the pop whiz kid who records as the Rocket Summer, had swapped out his sunny anthems for weighty existential themes or, God help us, some kind of concept record, will have their fears allayed as soon as the set kicks off with “Roses” and “You Gotta Believe”, a pair of uptempo sing-alongs that find Avary shouting gimme lines like “Keep holding on!” and, naturally, “You gotta believe!” The latter track in particular shows Avary’s power-pop chops in high gear, with “wah-oh” backing shouts cresting over the layers of chiming guitars.
As with every other Rocket Summer record, Avary not only self-produced Of Men and Angels, but composed and recorded every instrumental part on the album—drums, piano, and all. And while he’s good enough behind the mixer to ensure that his careful arrangements come through with impeccable clarity, his skills as a songwriter seem to have flagged since he emerged from Texas as a 20-year-old pop savant some seven years ago. With the emo-pop genre looking increasingly moribund, it’s probably for the best that Avary has largely grown out of his infatuation with the sounds of the Get Up Kids and Jimmy Eat World, but the remainder is a spit-polished brand of collegiate alt-pop in the vein of Ben Folds or the Fray—so generic it could actually benefit from some heart-on-sleeve angst. Instead, Avary aims for the type of cheeky, self-aware confessions on which Mr. Folds has made his career (presumably because someone, somewhere finds them endearing).
The results? “Walls,” the worst of a bad batch of ballads, culminates with a ho-hum line about the morning sun, but not before Avary hedges, “I know this is random, but…” Then there’s “Japanese Exchange Student,” which makes a notably superficial contribution to the time-honored subgenre of irritating songs about how hard and lonely it is to be a successful songwriter, revolving as it does around Avary being bummed out about how his friends get bummed out when his B-list ass can’t get them backstage with Beyoncé or Paul McCartney. Seriously. Nonetheless, Avary performs all of his material with so much gee-whiz earnestness that you won’t be able to resent the guy. But with slick, unpretentious pop-craft proving this much of a dead end, it’s clear that he needs to change up his game. Wonder if he’s considered doing a concept record?