Max Bemis loves a good story. The Say Anything frontman has written eight albums, the beginnings of a rock opera, and various comic books, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With his eighth album, Bemis shows us yet again his passion for writing and storytelling.
Billed as the band’s final album and a sequel to their 2005 pop punk classic …Is A Real Boy, Oliver Appropriate is a 34-minute tale of the album’s namesake and supposed subject of …Is A Real Boy’s career loss and realization of his sexuality, subsequently resulting in murder-suicide.
According to a nine-page statement written by Bemis explaining the new album and upcoming hiatus, the record was inspired by Museum Mouth’s 2014 release Alex I Am Nothing. Museum Mouth singer Karl Keuhn is featured on this album both vocally as well as playing the character of the protagonist’s unrequited love, referred to as “Story Karl” in Bemis’s statement. “Story Karl” doesn’t return Oliver’s feelings, prompting him to tie “Story Karl” and himself to a gigantic stone, throwing themselves into the ocean.
Individually, most songs on this album are solid, but as a whole the story comes off as slightly juvenile. It is a generic tale of unrequited love with the twist that the main character, Oliver, realizes he is gay after a one-night-stand with a man, played by Keuhn. After admitting to himself and “Story Karl” he in fact is gay and is in love with him, “Story Karl” tells Oliver he is actually in love with someone else. Instead of coming to terms with his sexuality and moving on, he commits murder-suicide with the man that didn’t return his affection.
This is a simplistically crass ending to a story that could have gone so much further, especially considering the broader context this story has in the realm of pop punk. There aren’t a ton of pop punk albums that feature an obviously gay main character, and even fewer that discuss unrequited love with a straight person. With the conclusion of murder-suicide, one could make the case that Bemis is telling the listener that the only solution to this situation that many LGBTQ people find themselves in is to kill themselves and the person who didn’t return their feelings. Though clearly this isn’t Bemis’s intention (this is a fictional story after all), I still find the conclusion of murder-suicide to be somewhat disappointing and wish it went further than just simply death.
The album ends with a spoken-word piece which Bemis describes as “Oliver’s ascension after death and acceptance of what he has done with himself, Karl, and the world.” Without Bemis’ explanation, it’s hard to reach that same conclusion as a listener. The spoken word piece describes the afterlife, but it doesn’t seem like Oliver has reached acceptance; rather, it seems almost as if he is indifferent about what happened. He mentions “not deserving” the person he is speaking to, presumably “Story Karl,” but fails to mention or even accept responsibility for murdering him. With Bemis’ spoken word piece, “Story Karl” not only seems to be the one who wants the relationship, he also seems to be perfectly okay with being murdered, simply kissing Oliver on the cheek and leaving after being told that Oliver “doesn’t deserve [him].” It just doesn’t make sense in the broader context of the story.
As far as each individual track goes, they are written in Bemis’ classic, angsty style, but his usual digs on the music industry are much more subtle, showing his progression as an artist and writer. “Greased” makes sarcastic digs at Coachella, and “Captive Audience” sardonically patronizes the listener. “Ew Jersey” makes a comment on being pigeonholed on a boutique label, clearly a subtle reference to his own experiences.
Still, some lines seem to be thrown into songs only to be edgy and relevant, without making sense to the story as a whole or even the song itself. In opener, “The Band Fuel,” after referencing Julian Casablancas in relation to New York, he inexplicably throws in a line about “Amazon drones” that makes no sense. Certain songs come off short and slightly unfinished. Oliver Appropriate would have benefitted from some lyrical editing.
Aside from the overarching story, though, this album definitely turned out some solid tracks. “Days” is a catchy, pop punk anthem that grows on you with each listen, inevitably getting stuck in your head for days. Keuhn’s vocals are like a breath of fresh air on “Your Father,” a welcome break from the abrasiveness of Bemis’ singing style.
Bemis’ wife, Sherri Dupree-Bemis of Eisley, is also featured prominently on this album. Her vocals are also a welcome addition to “The Hardest,” which even features an insanely cute vocal cameo from their daughter at the end. “Captive Audience” shows Bemis’ musical prowess with classic Say Anything time signature changes and cinematic orchestration. “It’s a Process” finally returns us back to …Is A Real Boy, one of the only songs on Oliver Appropriate that actually sounds like a continuation of the 2005 album.
Overall, this album is a respectable pop punk record, but as a sequel to …Is A Real Boy, it doesn’t land. Bemis sells it as a story about the character he created in …Is A Real Boy, but sometimes it seems as if he is reaching. I appreciate the approach of using the album as a way to kill off a character critics continuously expect him to live up to, but I don’t know if it was necessary. The album would have been more effective and interesting if it was written as a new story about a new character, instead of trying to harken it back to the character of …Is A Real Boy.
Oliver Appropriate’s merits are overshadowed by the fact that it is supposed to be a sequel to one of Say Anything’s most successful albums, thus forcing the listener and critics to treat it as such, instead of being able to listen to it as an independent creation by an artist who has grown phenomenally over the past 14 years. On its own, Oliver Appropriate is a solid final chapter in the book of Say Anything. However, as a sequel to the band’s most popular album, it just doesn’t seem appropriate.