I can’t quite believe it’s been a decade since the release of Say Anything’s seminal sophomore LP …is a Real Boy. The level to which Max Bemis, Say Anything’s only real component, has ascended in the past ten years is nearly staggering. Aside from this being Say Anything’s sixth full-length record, Bemis has kept impressively (and possibly overly) busy by releasing five full-length records as Max Bemis & the Painful Splits, one with Chris Conley of Saves the Day under the moniker of Two Tongues (with a second on the way), and one with wife Sherri Dupree-Bemis as Perma, which is all not to mention, of course, Bemis’ recent foray into comic-writing, which has already yielded two original series (Polarity and Evil Empire), as well as a Marvel entry in “A+X #14,” a team-up of Superior Spider-Man and Magneto. It’d be easy to worry that Bemis may be a little in over his head, especially considering the recent birth of his first child, daughter Lucy Jean, but the prolific scene-idol does a considerably impressive job compartmentalizing. Say Anything records sound more or less like Say Anything records, Two Tongues sounds like Two Tongues, and so on. But while Bemis has indeed kept his numerous plates spinning with relative expertise, there has been a predictable and inevitable decrease in the quality and energy of Say Anything material since the monolithic masterpiece that was …is a Real Boy. And that’s fine. Not every author’s latest novel is their best. With both In Defense of the Genre (2007) and the self-titled Say Anything (2009), Bemis was able to create records that appeased the reasonable majority of fans while simultaneously broadening the band’s range and accessibility.
It wasn’t until Anarchy, My Dear (2012) that I felt true disappointment in Say Anything. It wasn’t that the songs were more mainstream – Say Anything had been delicately toeing that line for years – it’s that they were uninspired. The record didn’t bring anything interesting to the table. It was boring, swollen with clichés (I mean, putting “My Dear” in your record title? Seriously?), and worst of all, felt forced. There was even an “Admit It Again”, for Satan’s sake. Not quite a year after Anarchy, My Dear, longtime drummer and collaborator Coby Linder left Say Anything behind, essentially freeing Bemis to do whatever he wanted. And do whatever he wanted, he did.
Fast-forward two years to Hebrews, a twelve-track orchestral curveball with not one lick of guitar on it. Not one. Bemis explained his thought process earlier this year to Substream Magazine saying, “The fact is, musically, [guitars] can actually be inhibiting to some degree. It’s only one instrument and if you get caught up in that idea of, ‘uhhh I’m only working from the pallet of guitar,’ at least for me, it started to become inhibiting…because I’m not an amazing guitar player.” To Alternative Press, he detailed the process: “I was able to write and arrange the record all on my own on the computer and then have someone else play the instruments, which is actually easier and more conducive to experimentation than it is to make a guitar-rock record.” All the string arrangements Bemis wrote on his laptop were transposed and played live on real string instruments by Jeremy Larson, adding a rather grandiose theatrically to much of the record. All drums and bass on Hebrews were done live as well, which keeps the record still rooted (albeit loosely) in Say Anything’s indie-punk history.
Bemis also enlisted some vocal help with Hebrews, as he is wont to do, featuring one or more guest vocalists on every song, including Andy Hull (Manchester Orchestra), Keith Buckley (Every Time I Die), Aaron Weiss (mewithoutYou), Tom DeLonge (blink-182, Angels & Airwaves), and many others. Bemis added here that several guests even went so far as to contribute their own lyrics and musical arrangements*. As was the case with In Defense of the Genre, which boasted 27 tracks and 23 guest vocalists, this both helps and hurts – the guest appearances are mostly enjoyable, which adds to the record, but at some point, you start to wonder whether you’re listening for Say Anything or the guests.
When it comes to Hebrews, simple questions don’t have simple answers. Is it good? Well, yes and no. Does it all work? Sometimes. At points, Hebrews showcases the hands-down best material Bemis has written in ten years. At others, it’s almost unlistenable.
So let’s start with the good news, shall we? In my opinion, the title track of Hebrews is the best Say Anything song written since 2004. Obviously, that’s a bold and subjective statement, but I encourage you to focus on this track especially when exploring the record. The song is an impassioned piece on the plight of minorities in America (“They say to be a minority is melting in their pot, but this soup is foul, I wear a scowl, and pine for what I’m not”). The song doesn’t only focus on Jews, its chorus drawing comparisons to the struggles of both the Native and African-American peoples – “I’m just a sick little Injun whose graves were razed by tank engines. I’m an African import whipped and bound as an export. I’m the Hebrew.” Unfortunately, I fear the song may be lost on much of Say Anything’s fan base, but that just may be my cynicism talking. It’s also the only track that really justifies the album’s art direction and the only instance of any klezmer (Yiddish music). “Boyd” is another top notch song, tongue-in-cheekly named after Bemis’ father-in-law, focusing on his own fears of fatherhood. Clocking in at only 2:15 with its simple and catchy-as-hell chorus of “So you’d better get her home by 11:30,” guitars or not, it’s downright one of the best punk songs of the year so far.
At this point, those familiar with Hebrews would probably point out that I’m obviously just only into faster Say Anything songs, and I would probably have to concede that they’re right, if it weren’t for “Push.” Featuring Hebrews’ best guest performance in the form of Aaron Weiss, “Push” is arguably the most atmospheric song on the album, complete with a reference to …is a Real Boy’s opener “Belt” as Weiss shouts, “…naked but his Father’s former belt he wear so well.” The closing track of Hebrews is also very strong thanks to harmonies from blink-182’s Tom DeLonge, whom I’m normally not even a fan of. The song ends the record on a high-note, for sure, with soaring “Oh yeah”s interspersed with Bemis’ wife Sherri repeating “Forsake the old to die young.”
Unfortunately, while the highs on Hebrews are lofty, the lows are absolutely abysmal. “Kall Me Kubrick” begins impressively with a chorus of “It’s why I never sympathize, no. It’s why I never, ever, ever feel at home,” drenched in a virulence reminiscent of the toxicity of Bemis’ earlier, more biting work. However, the song completely derails after 70 seconds, devolving into what sounds like a teenager trying to cover Rage Against the Machine on a cheap Casio as he screams, “You rape the world and wear the swastika. You suck yourself and wear the swastika.” There’s nothing else to say other than that it’s out-and-out bad, and I didn’t even mention that disastrously awful lyric about Red Bull. The next song, “My Greatest Fear is Splendid,” is so bouncy it’s hokey and couldn’t even be saved by the vocalist of MY FAVORITE BAND, Keith Buckley. Then there’s “A Look,” the chorus of which is LITERALLY a cliché – “You know, with a look like that, you could kill someone.” Therefore, the song should not exist. It’s pandering to a young demographic, a dumbing-down of what Bemis is capable of, and it’s a shame.
When not focusing on his impending fatherhood, Bemis stocks Hebrews’ lyrics with the usual self-effacement (“Tiny man, chubby man, a trembling, scruffy, lazy man sculpting with my puffy hands an idol to my pride’s demands”), and unfortunately, some overly defensive thoughts regarding his detractors. Bemis occasionally has a good point, as during “Judas Decapitation” when he cleverly assumes the persona of a naysayer (“Be 19 with a joint in hand. Never change the band. Never be a …real man”). During “Lost My Touch,” however, he comes off whiny and childish with lines like, “Some say I’ve lost my touch at crafting Say Anything songs. I suppose I’ll let you take my place on stage.” He claims here, “the song, on an existential level, is really about passing the torch to the people who feel like they can do something edgy and better. And they deserve it. They’re young; I’ve already lived that.” This sentiment does indeed come forth in the lines “The truth is one day you will be greater than I. The truth is one day I will be eclipsed and the thought of it brings a warm smile to my face because I’’ve lived and bled for this,” and I don’t doubt his sincerity, but I do believe the song’s inception was in bad taste, and seeing as this is the sixth Say Anything LP, he should have some skin by now.
Hebrews is a tricky record. Its glimmers of brilliance are bright, but its depths are deep and laughable. While it’s not the worst Say Anything album, it’s certainly not the best, nor even the second best. And there’s been a lot of talk like that – “best since” talk. I read a review that claimed Hebrews is the best Say Anything record since In Defense of the Genre and gave it an 88%. But my question is, why are we praising third-best? With Hebrews, Max Bemis succeeded in creating yet another “good enough” record. Unfortunately, its cons still outweigh its pros.
*According to the Billboard interview, Andy Hull “wrote and arranged and recorded his whole part completely over a blank piece of music,” and yet in Hebrews’ liner notes, Bemis claims he himself “wrote and arranged all the music.” Nitpicking, but a discrepancy nonetheless.