By Greg Kennelty, January 5, 2018
Front to Back Album Review: Mutemath - Play Dead
- Released: September 8, 2017
- Label: Wojtek Records
- Producers: Mutemath
4 Play Buttons
Mutemath making an album called Play Dead ended up being situational comedy in a way that founding vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Paul Meany couldn’t have possibly predicted. Right after hitting the studio, longtime member Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas quit the band after 13 years, and right before their tour, Darren King did the same after 15 years with the group. Mitchell-Cárdenas’ departure was unfortunate, but Meany told Rolling Stone King’s departure damn near killed the band.
“It stopped me in my tracks," he says of King's departure. "It's certainly nothing I was prepared for. I went through a full range of emotions this whole summer, just trying to figure out if there was a solution. What could we do? We'd already announced a tour. We had the album. So I was shocked. I was panicked. I was angry. I was sad, confused. I was trying to sort through it all. And the biggest thing was just trying to figure out if everything needed to stop."
With former member Jonathan Allen coming back on board for the first time since 2004 and David Hutchison stepping in as a touring drummer, Mutemath toured successfully and is back with a full lineup. In the same vein of unforeseen comedy within Play Dead’s creation, Meany says in the same interview that the album deals with topics of life, death, rebirth, redemption, and the possibilities of the afterlife – essentially, Meany was writing his band’s epitaph before he knew they were mere inches from proverbial death. Play Dead indeed, Paul.
Play Dead sleepily opens its eyes with Hit Parade, shuffles across the floor, grabs a coffee and its keys and then proceeds to burst energetically into the world with an impactful and equally catchy chorus. That bleary-eyed sentiment is echoed in the fifth track Nuisance, which also happens to be the closer to the first half of Play Dead. The proverbial Side B of Play Dead explores longer compositions with the midnight-esque dance sounds of Everything’s New, the raucous garage rock of War, and the quietly gentle builds of the still-grooving closer Marching Toward The End. I point out Marching Toward The End’s head-bobbing drum beat because that’s where Play Dead ties together all of its tracks; no matter where you are in the album there’s always an infectious rhythm section holding down the fort.
Play Dead is a new incarnation of Mutemath. One where the progressive tendencies of the much-loved Odd Soul album from 2011 give way to towering synthesizers, dreamy soundscapes, and laid back grooves. One where you might accuse Mutemath of being “dead” if you’re expecting their previous sound to be rehashed, but that accusation couldn’t be further from the truth. Stroll On wouldn’t have been welcome on just about any previous Mutemath album, though now its cybernetic harp sounds and bouncing beats are in the company of likeminded compositions. Taking things a step further than Stroll On is Break The Fever, which sounds like a beefed up Maroon 5 track with copious amounts of attention paid to the instrumentation surrounding an earworm-worthy vocal line. That or maybe a Daft Punk b-side from Random Access Memories that lean ever-so-slighty toward the band’s earlier material in terms of a rock sound. So if you’re expecting the roomy guitars and crunching bass of Mutemath past, you’re going to come out of this experience empty-handed and missing out on something great.
One of my favorite things about Play Dead is how natural it sounds despite portraying itself as a dance-y sort of pop record. The album’s production and recording have a very roomy sound, as if Mutemath refused to program a single thing on Play Dead. The final product is one that grooves and bops along at varying speeds, gets stuck in your head but never sounds manufactured and snapped to the grid to where it might as well have been performed entirely by a laptop. This is essentially a crash course in how to make a pop record as a garage rock album.
Play Dead is a transition from great to great for Mutemath. From excellent progressive-styled rock to well-composed sunny pop music. So sure, rest in peace Mutemath, and make way for Mutemath 2017.
Listened on the LS50W via Spotify Premium