After a monumental first release that netted them festival fame, mainstream airtime, and underground appreciation, Young the Giant‘s second full-length album, Mind Over Matter, launches amid raucous anticipation and expectation. With such large shoes to fill, the California rockers haven’t made it easy to maintain their early swagger, but as the title suggests, Sameer and gang aren’t nervous. The question is, shouldn’t they be?
“There’s no easy way to say this, Young the Giant. It’s not me; it’s you. I’m getting older and it almost seems like you’re getting younger.”
Sound familiar? That conversation is straight out of every high school rom-com since 1985. In a way, said conversation seems like the conceptual impetus for Young the Giant’s sophmore album, Mind Over Matter. Underdeveloped lyricism and generic sonics permeate the disc in its entirety. Now, you might say, “Young the Giant was immature and under-produced; ‘My Body’ was as high school as any song ever written.” So, let’s apply the high school metaphor to the first album and elucidate just how underwhelming Mind Over Matter really is. In this context, Young the Giant was youthful spontaneity—that freshman who starts reading poetry for the first time and writes like he has an infection that can only be cured with ink-letting. While not perfect, the lyrics were often fresh and exciting—flashes of brilliance that stood to validate a potential eruption of talent from the Irvine, California rockers. From the first note, the song writing was melodic, and atmospheric, with heavy riffs and Sameer’s smooth, pitch-perfect pipes bleeding through to melt faces and hearts alike.
Mind Over Matter is like the flamboyant, in-your-face, counter-culture 17 year-old who snubs his nose at his friends, parents, and teachers because “nobody gets him”—his heart is so broken and torn that the English language can’t do justice to the depths of his raw emotion, so he writes such inspiring lines as “we can analyze, philosophize, but who’s to say.” In fact, one track describes these ineffable emotional impulses as “a feeling you can’t describe”—deep.
Ad hoc, I learned that Young the Giant moved to Fueled by Ramen (the label that made Fun. less fun; more Nokia product placement), and it seems “the epicentre of the emo-pop movement” has converted another. The album reeks of lovesick cliché: “Look in my eyes, this is the reason why I stay;” “Maybe cuz I couldn’t feel a thing;” “Do you miss the friends, the names you crossed off?” There’s really nothing lyrically redeemable about this album. Trivia time: what does “Lights aglow / Tokyo snows” mean?
So let’s forget the lyricism for a minute, because that is easily the worst, and ultimately damning facet of Mind Over Matter. Sonically, Young the Giant have entered into a more cohesive and layered sound. Humming synth rumbles in the background of every song, and the riffs and lix of yesterday have been replaced with driving guitar rhythms. “Anagram” promises some experimental, syncopated vigor, which is good, but while this new musical direction is sometimes welcome change, it’s often blatantly generic, pop-rock kitsch. The guitars lose their nostalgic, gut-wrench of “Apartment” in favour of bland, chord-heavy punk-rock beats like “In my Home”. On Mind Over Matter, change equates to musical stagnation or reversion, mixing in the trends of 2013 and prior to produce a muddled alt-pop-synth sound that ultimately feels dated. Don’t believe me? Here’s the description from iTunes:
For their second full-length album, Young the Giant tapped producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, a longtime Beck collaborator whose production credits include boundary-blurring rockers like Blood Orange, M83, and Neon Trees. Meldal-Johnsen’s subtle, densely textured aesthetic is ideal for the expansive, guitar-driven rock on Mind Over Matter. While the majority of the album is filled with hard-driving anthems and shout-along choruses…the band also incorporate textures of jazz, darkwave, and electropop to offer a riveting and unpredictable ride.
I’ll admit, there’s something infectious about the emphatic urgency contained in many of the songs. The first few cycles of the album during the workday had me bobbing and swaying excitedly. A closer look at individual songs though, reveals the unfortunate truth.
“Crystallized,” one of the early singles, is by far the worst song on this album. The fact that it was released to create buzz speaks volumes about Mind Over Matter’s overall direction. The main lyrical conceit here: “the beat of my drum meets the beat of your heart,” and all sorts of necking behind the bleachers ensues. I’m not sure if YTG held a writing session with Ke$ha, but I think John Donne used the heart/drum comparison 300 years ago, so we should be quick to let it go. Even if we did, “Crystallized” is plagued with a distracting and underwhelming synth-pop groove. Plus, the rest of the song is lyrically abysmal and with each listen, “time weighs down on my mind, screaming at the sky.”
The title track isn’t much better. “Mind Over Matter” begins with underdeveloped existentialist contemplations, (“mind over matter, does it matter to any of us”) and continues with a string of the rhymes straight out of Woody Allen’s Rom-Com Survival Guide: “I missed that train, New York City—it rains…Jet Planes…LA.” Boy Meets Girl. Boy Loses Girl. Boy Chases Girl to Big City … and then he writes her Mind Over Matter. Girl Rejects Boy because Imagine Dragons did it first.
There are some bright spots on the album. “Paralysis, and “It’s About Time” hint to the real vision that might have sparked Mind Over Matter. “Paralysis” is one of very few instances where the new blend of sonic styles—the synth, some Beach-Boys-esque pop, and some contemplative atmospheric rock—really works. In fact, the track closes out the album so well that one almost forgets how long and uncomfortable the trip through musical puberty was. “It’s About Time” is hard-hitting and generally rocks out the way we all hoped this album would. Finally, in “Eros,” Sameer’s charismatic vocal delivery comes back in a chorus dripping of the raw, rock-and-roll sex appeal that made the band so popular in the first place.
“Daydreamer” also gets a lot right. It’s infectious and high-octane, charged with the vigour of an 18-year old who’s on his first post-high school road-trip. As is often the case with Mind Over Matter, the resonant pre-college feel becomes the song’s biggest flaw: lyrically the song is blatantly and unapologetically an anti-high school anthem so typical of early 2000’s emo bands that you’ll feel you’re back in Chemistry class, fourth period, the last Friday of senior year. The song is rife with a sense of heartbreak, disillusionment, and absent-minded political disobedience that fails to resonate with Sameer’s spooky, narratological imagism from Young the Giant.
Young the Giant are still a talented band, of that I’m sure. Future directional changes might help them achieve the potential that Young the Giant set out for them. Still, Mind Over Matter simply doesn’t hold water. After a few listens, you’ll wonder why you didn’t give Young the Giant the old turkey dump like that high school relationship that didn’t work out—even though, deep down, you’re probably still sure she’s the one.
6 pints at the Sadie Hawkins dance out of 10