In this day when every type of music has to have a category, A Great Big World’s debut Is There Anybody Out There? isn’t the easiest to classify. The band consists of two singer-songwriters Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino that met while at NYU. They don’t look like rock stars, but they are far too genuinely optimistic to be hipsters. But to label them boringly as “pop” is to do them a disservice.
Most people that haven’t heard this album yet probably have heard one song only from this band, the beautiful and extremely sad “Say Something” with Christina Aguilera. That is one far extreme of this album. But if you buy this album expecting only torch songs, you will be quite surprised when you start the album. In fact about 3/4 of the album is extremely upbeat and happy.
The album kicks off with “Rockstar”, a joyful tune about the dreams we all have as kids and how we shouldn’t let them die as we get older. Of the two singers, Ian is the primary singer and many times has a near falsetto that sounds similar to Nate Ruess of Fun. However the writing styles are quite different. “Land of Opportunity” stomps in next and has a lot of Ben Folds feel to it. Super cheery Ben Folds. This is good though because the style fits well and certain lines like “I’m changing my name to a word that’s really hard to say” are as genuine as they are goofy. That charm persists throughout the album. Track three is where we hit the first big ballad, “Already Home”, mostly sung by Chad. It is one of my favorites on the album, being a powerful ballad about overcoming a long distance relationship. But things then pick right back up with “I Really Want It”, a super-bouncy song about the want to succeed that borrows more than a little from “Video Killed The Radio Star” (in fact it’s almost impossible for me not to sing the “oh-uh-oh” part to this). Regardless, it’s not merely a ripoff. It’s a fun, if sort of bratty song.
Now we come to “Say Something”, which could equally be about a relationship that has become bitter and frigid to the point of giving up, or as the video also points out, about the last moments of losing someone you love. The song is quite the cathartic tearjerker. It’s on the album twice. First as it was originally intended, sung solo by Ian. Then at the end of the album is their version with Christina Aguilera that was recorded after the song was released as a single. While the hit version is more full with the backing vocals, and for once I have to compliment Christina Aguilera for providing beautiful harmonizing rather than showboating, there is also a stark beauty to the original version’s simplicity. Then as if to bring spirits back up, another ballad follows called “You’ll Be Okay”. This one is more of an uplifting hold-hands type singalong. Again, this song could be absolute cheese. But these guys really believe in the songs and that confidence can be felt and makes it all work.
And then we get to “Everyone is Gay”, possibly the bounciest, most gleeful song I have ever heard about being yourself. Sure, it’s silly. But the point is to laugh and smile. If we can’t laugh at the absurdity of it all, then that leaves us pretty miserable. And if you smirk at “If you’re straight, we’ll that’s great, you can help procreate, and make gay little babies for the whole human race”, then you probably need to lighten up a bit. Next “There Is An Answer” sways towards the Ben Folds side again, along with another influence or two I can’t quite pinpoint. Maybe because I don’t have a lot of reference points for piano singer-songwriters with happy-go-lucky lyrics. But the song is big and full of life. “I Don’t Wanna Love Anybody Else” follows as another heartfelt ballad that could be cliche but works because of its honesty. Chad’s vocals really win me over on the chorus of this one. “This Is The New Year” is the oldest song on the collection, being used about a year ago for the TV show Glee when nobody really knew yet who the band was. It is a brand-new-start rolling piano anthem, yet oddly this is one of my lesser favorites, although there’s really nothing here to dislike. It just didn’t stand out the way some of the others did I guess. “Shorty Don’t Wait” is about as close as these guys will get to something like The Lumineers or the feel of “Give Peace a Chance”. Points for a non-rap use of the word “shorty”.
The final song (aside from the bonus version of “Say Something”) is a quirky but short number called “Cheer Up!” which sounds something like Fun. meets They Might Be Giants. It sounds more like a jubilant children’s song, and that’s kind of the point: to make you think about the wonder of this “great big world” the way you did when you were a kid. My advice is to pick a version of “Say Something” you like best, put it in the earlier sequence in a playlist, and end on this song instead as it sums up the whole album.
I’m sure A Great Big World will end up being one of those bands that it’s not cool to like. That makes them even more endearing to me. While they can write catchy songs, the songs come from a very real unforced place. Sometimes as the song says we do just need to “cheer up”, sing along and smile. I wholeheartedly recommend this album and am really interested to see where they go next.
Pick up your own copy of Is There Anybody Out There? HERE:
Check out these videos and performances from the album:
“This Is The New Year”:
“Rockstar” (On Air with Ryan Seacrest):
“I Really Want It”:
“Everyone Is Gay”:
“You’ll Be Okay” (Live at Brooklyn Bridge Park):