We all have our problems. Let us first address those of Max Bemis.
“Well, let me tell you this,” announces Max Bemis, in one of many spoken-word tirades that punctuate “Admit It!!”, the final track on his L.A. band Say Anything’s first CD, Is a Real Boy. “I am shamelessly self-involved. I spend hours in front of the mirror making my hair elegantly disheveled. I worry about how this album will sell, because I believe it will determine the amount of sex I will have in the future.”
Oh, God. No, no, no, no, no. This is a problem. His problem. Except it’s also my problem, because I love Is a Real Boy as I rarely love these days. It is the absolute zenith of MySpace-era pop-punk, deranged and volatile and psychotically catchy, choruses and anthemic chants and million-dollar hooks bursting in every direction, 10 pounds of psycho in a five-pound bag. Reviews tend to dwell on Bemis’s very public emotional struggles—he’s bipolar, for starters, which has caused the abrupt cancellation of several lucrative recent tours—and Is a Real Boy has that self-immolating glow of crazed near-genius, Bemis himself playing most of the instruments that aren’t drums and enlisting howling Greek choruses of multitracked Maxes to shout behind him, an endlessly surging army of glorious narcissism. The lyrics dwell on self-medication, self-loathing, self-pity, self-gratification. Every song sounds 8,000 feet tall. This is the album Weezer would’ve made next if everyone had loved Pinkerton when it first came out. Love it. Best song here is “Every Man Has a Molly,” which might, alas, be the biggest problem of all, beginning as it does with the following:
Here I am at the end of my rope
I’ve lost all hope so long
Molly Connolly just broke up with me
Over the revealing nature of the songs
You goddamn kids had best be gracious
With the merch money you spend
Because for you I won’t ever have rough sex
With Molly Connolly again
“Molly Connolly ruined my life,” Max howls climactically. “I thought the world should know.”
Oh, God. Jessica Hopper wrote a fantastic essay a couple years back about this, the emo-boys-demonizing-ex-girlfriends thing, that blows all of this more or less to hell. “Molly” sounds as though Max read it and tried to embody the epidemic Hopper was describing as accurately as possible. Chatting on the horn during rehearsals for the band’s next album—a possibly two-disc set titled In Defense of the Genre, being produced by Brad Wood in a NYC studio Max declines to name so fans don’t show up to, oh, perhaps acknowledge how well his last album sold—Max says the women he meets don’t give him any guff about any of this. “No, no, they seem to understand it’s playful,” he says. “If Beyoncé can sing fuckin’ songs like ‘Irreplacable,’ then guys can write songs like that too. It’s one thing to objectify women and be like, ‘All women are bitches’ or something, like rappers and rock bands can make girls into these cold-hearted creatures or money-leeching objects—but I wrote those songs about a person who hurt me and happened to be a girl.”
Let’s talk about something else. The title In Defense of the Genre, for example. “In a simple sense, you could say it’s what’s being labeled as emo by the media these days,” Max says. “A lot of people who diss on it are basically jaded—people who don’t know where it came from and what its significance is, in terms of being a part of the counterculture and being a valuable part of punk rock culture. Even the pop aspect of it, how it helps kids, people who listen to it, feel like they’re not alone, gives them people to identify with who aren’t afraid to show their feelings as opposed to being ridiculous machismo fuckin’ punk rockers or fuckin’ jaded hipsters.”
This is an interesting paradox—the more brazenly self-involved and solipsistic a record tends to be, the more ardently its fans identify with it, the more it appears to speak to you and only you, and the more communal and almost religiously reverent the accompanying concerts become. Last Sunday night Max played a solo acoustic show at a sold-out Knitting Factory—split 50/50 between boys and girls, oddly enough—and the crowd screamed along with every word, Dashboard Confessional-style, to songs as bizarre and thoroughly Max-specific as “Alive With the Glory of Love,” an ode to his grandparents that wistfully recalls their apparently rapturous, sex-crazed romance while in hiding from the Nazis during World War II; The Diary of Anne Frank meets Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (It’s the semi-hit off Real Boy, which first emerged on the indie label Doghouse in 2004 and was re-released this year on J Records. The next single is a bonus track, “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too,” which describes a hapless Jewish greenhorn sweet-talking a phone-sex operator.)
A few days later Max went to the Fall Out Boy/New Found Glory show at Hammerstein Ballroom, where NFG’s guitarist acknowledged him from the stage and praised Say Anything as one of his favorite bands, whereupon NFG’s frontman started singing the chorus to “Alive With the Glory of Love” in a boisterous, jokey bellow that struck me as offensive and disrespectful. Seriously. I was actually pissed off. I got it bad for this band, and it feels like a prototypical lure-of-the-bad-boy scenario, the bombast flirting with danger, the self-awareness with self-parody, the playful swipes at ex-girlfriends with something far more sinister. The only thing that could make this record better is if Molly Connolly writes her own record that crushes it. I welcome this attack even as I ardently defend Max’s defense of the genre.