Sometimes a band comes along that just changes how I look at everything. Fun. is that band.
It all started with one of this year’s inescapable songs “We Are Young”. It was everywhere, from car commercials to Glee, to every public place that plays pop music. I liked the song, but didn’t take it seriously until I watched the beautifully chaotic video for the song. then I realized Janelle Monae was involved, who is another recent artist that really exemplifies the word “artist” to me. So I gave a preview listen to the whole album. It felt like being a kid opening a Crayola megapack when all you had before were the basic colors.
Right from the beginning you know this is going to be an interesting ride. “Some Nights Intro” starts out soft like a lullaby. The lyrics, as with much of the album’s lyrics are very personal, and chronicle Nate Ruess’ ten year run at trying to be heard, through ADHD-tinted glasses. “Some nights I live in horror of the people on the radio. Tea parties and twitter, I’ve never been so bitter”. And then like a Disney nightmare sequence, opera vocals and pounding tympani drums bring the song crashing to a crescendo, and Nate hits notes that had their hair on my neck standing up. And he makes it sound so effortless and joyous. That’s the intro.
“Some Nights” is the first proper song, which has also been everywhere you go since the summer. The song is so damn catchy, so lush and layered, and yet happy and easy to sing along to. The lyrics are again ripped right from Ruess’ mental diary, but have a profound effect on me, as this is exactly the way I have felt as an indecisive music addict hitting my mid 30s and being indecisive about what path to take. “What do I stand for? Most nights I don’t know anymore.” Here we also have the use of autotune to create an insanely high peak to the “Come on!” bridge. I’m usually not a fan of autotune, but here I like it. It’s already obvious at the point that Nate can sing his butt off.
“We Are Young” follows. A celebration of living in the moment and enjoying your youth. Or is it? Nate is now 30, and bandmates Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost are close behind. The lyrics are quite dark reflective in spite of the chorus. “My seat’s been taken by some sunglasses, asking bout a scar. I know I gave it to you months ago. I know you’re trying to forget.” It’s a slightly misleading singalong in a similar way to how Green Day’s “Good Riddance” seems lost when played at graduations and weddings. But it is a great song, does not stick to a typical pop formula, and has great songwriting and somehow still became a top single. Janelle Monae’s angelic “Carry me home tonight” section really is icing on the cake. Of note here is the thing that sets this album apart from their excellent first release Aim and Ignite. Jeff Bhasker handled the production on the album. Since Fun. doesn’t have a regular drummer in the studio, Bhasker handled the percussion, giving a big beat hip-hop based production that offsets the excellent guitar and piano by the band. This is a true chocolate in the peanut butter situation.
Next we have probably my favorite song on the album, “Carry On”. Nate starts lamenting what he is told, “You swore and said we are not, we are not shining stars.” But by the end of the song comes to change his mind. “We are shining stars, we are invincible, we are who we are!” and my favorite line “I’ve closed enough windows to know I can never look back.” It starts as a sad reflective piano bar song and ends with marching drums and a joyous chorus of broken hearts realizing we aren’t alone.
The jolting moment is when “It Gets Better” starts, with a programmed loop that sounds like a drum machine choking on itself playing several drums at once, before settling on a somewhat cheesy new wave Go-Go’s beat. “This is really happening! You’ve never looked so bored!”. The song is goofy and yet full of heart, which keeps me from disliking it. But it still feels out-of-place a bit. However, on an album where every move feels like it should be there, this is the one part of the painting I can stare at for hours and try to figure out.
Next we come back down to earth with “Why Am I The One”. “For once I get the feeling that I’m right where I belong. Why am I the one always packing up my stuff?” This is a song where nate is self-aware that a big change is right around the corner. Driven by a great guitar line and a huge beat. Again the acoustic and natural and the electronic make a nice contrast. The second half of the album is sequenced in a way that flows together, so the beginning and end points aren’t clear if you aren’t watching.
“All Alright” is another favorite of mine. This starts out with piano and turns into a big singalong, featuring a children’s chorus of “Yeah it’s all alright, I guess it’s all alright. I got nothing left inside my chest but it’s all alright”. Sad and somber lyrics against a happy backdrop. This gives way to “One Foot”. The song is built on a celebratory sounding orchestra bit, maybe from a parade. It is looped in a way that would normally be in a Kanye West song. But under a rock track it can get a bit repetitious, until you zoom out and realize all of the emotion building above it. It’s here where some of the best lyrics are. “Maybe I should learn to shut my mouth. I am over 25 and can’t make a name for myself. Some nights I break down and cry.” before lamenting how lucky he is that his father is still alive and fame may not be the most important thing to worry about. The end of “One Foot” comes and bursts into the big finale.
“Stars” is a big opus of an ending, starting very simple with echoes of “Come on!” from “Some Nights”, building on the themes of “One Foot” musically and lyrically, and then we get to the chorus, which i am told uses a talkbox effect rather than the usually assumed autotune. To a smooth hip-hop backbeat and gorgeous strings nate sings how “You.. you’re always holding onto stars. But I think they’re better from afar”. The song builds into a Queen “I Want To Break Free” style solo, and then the voice effect is applied to a children’s choir joining Nate. The song keeps building until we are in effect overdrive.. beautiful and chaotic, until the track falls away one layer at a time into a heap of sappy emotion. The End.
This is why the final track “Out On The Town” is listed as a bonus track. The song isn’t part of the song cycle. think of it as the band coming back out after the curtain falls for an encore. This is a simple song about Nate’s dreaming of not being lonely and pondering his place in life at the moment. A very sweet and simple song with a big hip hop drum machine beat driving it. It’s a nice extra to make the album not quite so short, but far from a b-side.
So why is this #1 of the many, many albums I’ve heard this year? It’s because this album makes me want to write better. I hear the songs and wish I could have done that. The songs speak to me and feel genuine. I get the feeling that no matter how popular this band gets, and while well-deserved, that they will continue to make open and honest music that isn’t afraid to bare one’s soul and take chances. It’s a shame it took Nate Ruess ten years to be heard by the masses, first in his band The Format, then starting in 2009 with Fun. But now that Fun. has arrived, they are here for good.
Videos from the album to check out:
“We Are Young”