Year of the Album — #002
Plain White T’s – “The Wonders of the Younger”
Hollywood Records (2010)
Similar Albums: Fall Out Boy – “Folie a Deux” (Island, 2008)
Vandeveer – “Grace & Speed” (Gypsy Eyes Records, 2007)
Plain White T’s latest album may be the weirdest, most interesting and innovative pop album of 2010 that no one seems to be talking about. These guys refuse to rest on their laurels after their huge hits “Hey There, Delilah” and “1, 2, 3, 4,” instead choosing to go the route of Fall Out Boy’s Folie a Deux, only minus the overwhelming sense of pretentiousness which permeated that album. Where Fall Out Boy failed – in actually sounding like they were having some fun with their experimentation – Plain White T’s, and lead isnger Tom Higgenson in particular, seem to be loving every minute of this idiosyncratic album.
And fans will too, if they’re willing to listen to the album a few times to let the odder songs fully sink in. There’s nothing on here that gets repetitive, and there are more winning songs than you’re going to be able to absorb all at once. “Boomerang” sounds like the closest thing to a straightforward single: “You tell me to go and beg me to stay, I keep coming back like a boomerang … round and round and round and back again!” It’s infectious and will take over your mind like the plague.
But rather than sit back and say “hey, we’ve got the single!” the band jumps forward leaps and bounds on “Welcome to Mystery,” which hearkens back to the odd-ball folk stylings of Vandeveer, whose album Grace & Speed is another you’re likely to have missed out on. The song opens with acoustic guitars and grand Beatlesque harmonies, adds some synth and then slams home with crunching guitars that lead into the hook-filled chorus. “This is a town with no history,” Higgenson sings, “welcome to mystery,” before delving into a ridiculously awesome fantasy sequence in the second verse. “Blue treetops and velvet skies, here ready to blow your mind. This is a place where your mind can escape all the problems of today and go far far away” Indeed.
But why stop there? They follow that up with “Rhythm of Love,” the best song Jack Johnson didn’t write, which actually manages to be low key, smooth and – above all – fun, without being cloying. It’s also mindbendingly catchy, and by that point on the album the whole thing’s in full-tilt awesome territory. “Map of the World” adds creepy bell chimes to a hand-clap drum track and harmonized vocals before jumping into a full-speed synth-pop experience. “Am I a dot on the map of the world?” Higgenson asks. “When I imagine the whole universe, where do I fit in?” Fitting, considering their young audience will be studying this album note by note wondering both how it fits into what they’ve heard before from the band and where they’re going to be heading in the future. Where do Plain White T’s fit into the pop landscape?
Even at this point we’re only halfway through the album, and the remainder manages to continuously up the artistic and creative ante while mainting momentum and avoiding what would seem like an inevitable dip in quality by the end. Pop albums that encourage you to listen straight through for full appreciation of the sound are rare, which makes this one all the more worthy of praise.
Judging by the rest of this brilliant album, a leap forward creatively for a band many had written off as two-hit wonders, they will fit in just fine. Higgenson is setting the band up to be pop outlaws in the sense that they’re willing to experiment stylistically rather than leaping from trend to trend, and The Wonders of the Younger will win over many potential fans who distrusted the band’s credibility after “Hey There, Delilah” turned them into teenage sex objects. If you’re a fan of pop music that pushes the envelope without being overly pretentious or self-aware, this is the album you owe it to yourself to give a listen or two. Or ten. Why not? There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure if it’s this energizing to listen to.