When a punk band slinks back to an indie label after a stint in the majors, it often adopts a stripped-down, back-to-basics approach—as if to say, “Hey, now that we’re not being pressured by a bunch of suits anymore, we’re getting back to our roots.” True to Max Bemis’ infamously contrarian bent, he’s done the opposite. Anarchy, My Dear is the first album by Bemis’ brainchild, Say Anything, since the group left RCA/Sony for the humbler home of Equal Vision. Instead of punking shit up, though—an expectation only heightened by the album’s prankish title—he’s padded Anarchy with lushness, delicacy, and nuance.
The problem is, Bemis’ nuance screeches louder than distortion. Even at his brashest, he’s always been able to inject bratty pop-punk anthems with a dizzying amount of craft, quirk, and acerbic introspection. That hasn’t changed; on opener “Burn A Miracle,” he sings of a boy who “looked a lot like me, but his eyelids were destroyed,” a sadly familiar figure who “pleasured himself to the music of well-dressed, inbred college students.” If only the self-deprecation had the slightest bit of sting to it, musically speaking. Instead, Bemis’ snarl is softened by cushy synths and muddled guitars—not to mention his infuriating lack of directness, which at this point feels more like obfuscation than affectation. By the time he starts losing the threads of both cohesion and melody on “Admit It Again,” a rant about all the parasites who have wronged him (or rather, “the scene”), his carefully planned spontaneity has already squandered any steam it’s built.
And the whole “anarchy” thing might not be prank after all. In a recent Billboard interview Bemis openly states, “This album is about rebellion.” Of course, that’s not the same as being rebellious; rather than rolling up his sleeves and embracing anything remotely resembling chaos, he’s hanging back, doing the math, and making wisecracks. But when he strips away his armor and unveils a relatively unguarded track like “So Good”—full of layered instrumentation and perfectly deployed barbs of romantic anguish—Bemis again proves that his songs have the potential to be stunning, if only he’d get out of their way. Ultimately, Anarchy does succeed in shaking up Say Anything’s recent trajectory—as well setting up Bemis’ promise that, this time around, anything might happen. It’s just a shame that very little does.