AJR

The cover art for "OK ORCHESTRA" by AJR.

AJR released its long-anticipated fourth studio album, “OK ORCHESTRA,” on March 26. 

The bar was set high after the release of the bands most commercially successful single “Bang!” and the subsequent hit singles “Bummerland'' and “Way Less Sad.” The Met brothers more than exceeded expectations with this new record. Blending the storytelling methods of musical theater and the quirkiness of indie pop, “OK ORCHESTRA” is their most introspective and sonically ambitious project yet. 

Much like their first two albums “Living Room” and “The Click,” “OK ORCHESTRA” opens with an overture of the entire album. “Ok Overture'' is the most intricate track on the record and possibly the most creatively produced song in the band’s entire discography. The song starts with a narrator explaining the foreign sound of the melody-infused drums in the beginning before announcing the official start of the song. Thereafter, an ear-stimulating sound hits the listener. The overture is a rollercoaster for any listener's ears and imagination as the song shifts tempos and plays with various music genres like hip-hop, doo-wap, jazz and pop. 

After the climatic finish of “Ok Overture,” AJR keeps the energy flowing with their summer hit “Bummerland,” which first teased the album’s experimental production style of morphing voices and instruments in the song’s bridge. 

The thundering tribal drum beat and the Weezer-esque gang vocals pair well with the song’s message of rising from rock bottom and taking the small victories as they come. In “3 O’Clock Things,” the band tackles a slew of topics that keep them up at night, such as life choices, relationships and politics. Similar to the 1930s-inspired vocals on their last album “Neotheatre,” AJR uses a jazzy 1940s choir sound on the hook of this track. The snappy hip-hop drums and bombastic trumpets keep the listener bobbing their head along to the late-night contemplations found in the lyrics up until the song’s thrilling conclusion. 

The first emotional gut-punch of the album comes in the form of “My Play,” a song about their parents’ divorce. The swirling, melancholy background vocals invoke nostalgia in the opening verse as the lead singer, Jack, recalls them playing in their childhood home. This feeling of nostalgia soon turns into heartbreak when the chorus drops and Jack pleads his parents to watch his play together and not at separate times in different houses. In the succeeding verse, we hear how their parents’ divorce has affected the way they approach romantic relationships in the present. The brothers are scared to completely devote themselves to one person because if their parents grew apart, then so could their future relationships with their partners. The lyrical storytelling in “My Play” is some of the best AJR has ever made. Jack singing about wanting to have his parents attend his home-staged play starts as a childish cry for attention but then transforms into a desire to comfort his parents by distracting them during this trying time for the family. 

Divorce is rarely talked about in songs and is still taboo for many. Having grown up in a separated household, the band approaches the topic with refreshing maturity, understanding that people grow apart sometimes. Things pick back up with “Joe,” a song about desperately vying for someone’s attention — someone who would never give them the time of day. The lyrics are filled with brutal honesty and brilliantly articulated irony as Jack brags that he never thinks about Joe, despite dedicating an entire song to him. The instrumental features a Mozart piano sample and a rapid-fire beatbox loop that gives the song a feel completely unique to AJR. 

“Adventure is Out There” challenges the listener to explore the outside world and experience everything life has to offer. The driving drums and the upbeat guitar strums matched with the lyrics calling for adventure would make anyone want to pack up and go on a road trip. Sonically, the track is reminiscent of the trio’s early work on “Living Room” and even contemporary folk artists like Mumford and Sons and First Aid Kit. 

The smash hit single “Bang!” looks at the stresses of adulthood and the changes an artist must make to grow. The song is littered with lyrical easter eggs of past AJR songs, paying homage to their success, but also letting the listener know a new era of AJR music is being ushered in. The instrumental features blaring trumpets and a dark-trap-inspired beat. The instrumental alone would make great entrance music for a Disney villain. 

One of the strangest yet more emotional songs on the album “The Trick” tells the story of an insecure individual who compulsively lies in hopes of gaining love from those around him. The band paints the character in this song as an anti-hero of sorts as their actions are not acceptable, but their intentions of wanting to be loved and accepted are understandable à la “Dear Evan Hansen.” Paired with the lyrics is a plucky ukulele instrumental and lush orchestral strings that are nothing short of magical. 

“Ordinaryish People” opens with marching band horn fanfare and hard-hitting electronic drums that hooks the listener from the get-go. In this track, the trio points out how futile it is trying to please your judgmental peers and encourages people to focus on being themselves instead. The song switches up with a crazy drum breakdown courtesy of Blue Man Group, the only feature on the album and a very fitting one at that. 

Similar to Neotheatre’s “Karma,” AJR continues to explore the trials and tribulations of mental health issues in “Humpty Dumpty.” Jack compares himself to the nursery rhyme character as he puts on a happy face in public for all to see, but when he is in pieces, he feels like no one will come to put him back together again. The part that stands out the most in terms of production is the vocal-infused piano in the bridge, which can only be described as a musical cartoon character come to life. 

“World’s Smallest Violin” tactfully unpacks the issue of individual struggle, recognizing that some have it worse than others in this world, but that doesn’t invalidate the feelings and problems that one might have. The track showcases the instrument-morphing production style of the album in full force as an entire symphony of instruments blend into one another — from violins transforming into pianos to electric guitars evolving into xylophones. The upbeat, playful instrumentation pairs nicely with the song’s message, making it a thought-provoking and infectious listen. 

If “Bummerland” is a celebration of the good things to come while sitting at rock bottom, then “Way Less Sad” is a rambunctious party halfway from the top. On the track, Jack expresses that he isn’t happy yet, but he is doing better than he has been, and he wants to revel in that feeling. The song encourages the listener to lower their expectations for themselves and to enjoy the progress they have made so far. The charismatic instrumental boasts a Simon and Garfunkel horn sample and a killer hip-hop beat that fans can’t help but dance along with. 

In place of their usual grandiose finale, AJR closes out the record with the mellow yet deeply emotional track “Christmas in June,” which showcases the struggle between following one’s dreams and being with the person one loves the most. The lyrics describe the difficulties of missing out on holidays like New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day with a significant other but not wanting to give up making music and touring.

Hoping to stop breaking promises, Jack asks his partner if they can have Christmas in June to make sure he won’t miss it. The song ends with Jack contemplating on what he might miss in the future, like being there for the birth of his future children. The instrumental features an easy-going Broadway melody paired with triumphant trumpets and drums in the first portion that gives way to forlorn woodwinds and strings in the final seconds of the song. Given the album’s introspective nature and the prevalent theme of coming to terms with life’s issues, “Christmas in June” is the perfect closer for the record. 

AJR’s “OK ORCHESTRA” offers a unique variety of sounds and stories that all culminate into one magical experience. The production is daring and distinctive, and the lyrics are bravely vulnerable yet relatably fun. “OK ORCHESTRA” is quite possibly AJR’s best work thus far.

Final verdict: 10/10

(1) comment

John Maguire

No mention of the reference to Iowa State in "Christmas in June"?

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