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Good lord, what happened to Columbus?
On 2015’s ‘Home Remedy’ EP, they had an awesome melodic hardcore sound that made for energetic songwriting and emotionally palpable lyrics. It was a great four-track release that showed a huge amount of promise, and I loved it. With their debut album, 2016’s ‘Spring Forever’, the Brisbane trio ditched a lot of their harder edges for brisk, poetic yet polished emo/pop-punk; with big hooks and an even bigger lyrical heart. This was all wrapped up in an endearing boyish charm, with tunes like ‘Replace Me’, ‘Daffodil‘, ‘Say What You Want‘ and ‘Raindrop’ being real standouts that I won’t hear a bad word said about. Yet as hinted by the lighter sound of 2017 single, ‘Next To Me‘, on second LP ‘A Hot Take On Heartbreak’, I’m worried that Columbus may have already peaked. That much like New Found Glory’s best song, it’s all downhill from here.
Everything about ‘A Hot Take On Heartbreak’ is just so… mild. Tonally, it’s disgustingly sweet to the point that it’ll rot your fuckin’ teeth out, what with the band focusing more on the pop side of things than their pop-punk sound. As well as this album’s main focus being on incessantly bright guitar melodies and saccharine pop-vocal harmonies that litter the ten tracks on offer. As for these overly sugary vocals, at first the near-constant “ooohs” and harmonies are actually kinda cute. But by the end of it all, they’re just grating and feel relatively forced too. In this case, songs like ‘Worn Out This Week’, ‘Care At All‘, and ‘Feelin’ Low‘ are the worst offenders.
Instrumentally speaking, it has very few moments that kick up one’s heart rate. (For instance, the screaming guitars in ‘Cut It Out’, or the riff and kick-snare flam combo’s during the closing moments of ‘Give Up). Daniel Seymour’s drumming is mostly just mid-tempo beats and his work behind the kit is less busy and, as a drummer myself, less attention-grabbing too. Guitarist/lead vocalist Alex Moses still has that honest and warm tone to his vocal delivery, which is a plus. However, it seems like his sole focus here was to write dumbed-down choruses first, meaningful lyrics third. That being said, his lead guitar game is strong throughout and his six-string playing is one of the rare saving graces for a lot of tracks. Oh, and as for bassist/backing vocalist, Ben Paynter (who, in a massive blow to their dynamic, has actually quit the band), well, er, he’s there I guess…?
The band’s music is still mostly major-key orientated, still pretty upbeat, and still catchy, yes. But my issue is that the once strong spring in their songwriting and instrumental step has now become limp. For despite their age, Columbus sound bored and out of breath on ‘A Hot Take On Heartbreak‘. Seriously, doing an AB switch between new material like ‘Care At All’ or ‘Piece Of Shit‘ back to ‘Downsides Of Being Honest’ or ‘Toss & Turn’ is like a night and day difference. A rather depressing process, I must admit.
Of course, we all can’t stay forever young and punk jump our youth away, and there’s nothing wrong with creating a non “pop-punk” album too. A 2018 favourite of mine is The Wonder Years new record, ‘Sister Cities’, which brilliantly matures their alternative rock sound further away from the sweaty Philly basement pop-punk of their early days. All with fantastic songwriting, potent atmosphere, lively production, great instrumentals, and Soupy’s deepest honesty and strongest lyrical symbolism and metaphors yet. However, not all art is created equal and you just won’t find that rabbit-hole depth with this new Columbus record. Of course, Columbus were never setting out with that kind of grand ambition as The Wonder Years were, but even so, their own end results leave much to be desired.
In the wake of their punk sheddings, it seems that groups like Weezer were the biggest musical inspirations for the direction of this sophomore LP. (That, or they wanted to write a bunch of bland pop-rock tunes for the credits of Drake & Josh). And look, I enjoy Weezer as much as the next guy, but man, this isn’t their ‘Blue Album’, it’s not their ‘Pinkerton’, and it ain’t even their ‘Green Album’. This is just Weezer worship without the solid songs to back it up. Or, in a more facetious manner, as my brother put it to me recently: “it’s 2002 Simple Plan without the charm, or the humour, or the self-awareness“. (Fuck, I really do love you, Matty).
However! Not all hope is lost, as there are some good moments to be had on ‘A Hot Take On Heartbreak‘, with some nice added cues here and there too. In that instance, check out the EKG flatline sound effects happening right before the final chorus of ‘Woke Up With A Heart Attack’; giving a song sorely lacking in character an added kick to the chest.
Of all the pop-rock and thinly veiled pop-punk tracks here, opener ‘Don’t Know How To Act‘ is the most successful iteration. It’s a genuinely catchy and fun song, seemingly borrowed over from their ‘Spring Forever‘ days, and I can see why it was the record’s first single too. When I first heard it, I wasn’t overly stoked on the track, but it’s become a grower on me, for sure. I just can’t quite say the same about most of its siblings here, however.
One thing that ‘A Hot Take…‘ defines itself by is its push-and-pull between summery pop-rock vibes and a darker, ’90s alternative rock sound, with some full-on grungier moments during the likes of ‘Cut It Out‘. This makes for a somewhat musically inconsistent album; like this is the bridge between what Columbus are currently and what they hope to become in time. Which is ironic, for ‘Don’t Know How To Act‘ was written about insecurity and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as Columbus definitely sound insecure here.
In terms of that latter alt-rock approach, second-to-last track ‘Difficult Conversations’ is the winner for that particular style. Of all these ten songs, ‘Difficult Conversations‘ is the one that best taps into the release’s central theme of the dynamics of relationships. It’s about exactly what the title says: those painfully difficult conversations between yourself and a soon-to-be ex-lover, were “words come to my ear like dodging knives” as you both hash out “all the accusations“. The added piano layer to the instrumentation adds to the song’s already heavily sombre nature; something that the lyrics nail as well. It unequivocally shows the promise for what Columbus could do with their sound and these darker, alternative rock moods down the road.
Likewise, the record’s quieter, acoustic and melancholic closer, ‘Feel This Way‘, carries this dour theme and nicely brings back the emotive piano parts from ‘Difficult Conversations’. With some really delicate vocals softly aching through the track, any remaining sense of this album’s summer-happy vibe is completely killed off. But fittingly so, I feel, and while there might be a lot of bumps along this album’s road, at least the journey does end on a decent note.
As you may have noticed, one key facet of this record is that Columbus have opted for that classic contrast of “happy music, sad lyrics“. Paramore’s ‘After Laughter‘ is one album of recent memory that I think does this idea very well; merging bright and poppy indie new-wave with Hayley Williams‘ emotionally cutting lyrics about her relationship with husband deteriorating drastically and the emotional pain and bitterness she suffered. However, here’s the thing about that approach: you need to have good songs (and Columbus have a few here, admittedly), but you also need good lyrics to back it up too. And this is where the record falls flat, sadly.
As the title hints, ‘A Hot Take On Heartbreak‘ is intended as a play-by-play of a relationship on its way out; a record about a couple’s romance coming off the rails and that defeat of not being able to find love. Which is a fucking great idea for a record, as channelling heartache into music can make for good art. It just didn’t happen here.
Alex’s lyrics are still personal, which is great: his lyricism reflects upon himself, where he and his ex-partner(s) were at, their time together, the feelings elicited in love blooming and then withering, and his headspace after the fact. Yet, frustratingly, it never goes that deep nor is it all that emotionally revealing either. All you know as the listener is that there was a relationship (or perhaps a few), there were ups and there were downs, and then it all ended; fueling the frontman’s creative fires for this record. As someone consuming the band’s music, I’d love extra details and further info on all of these matters to help bolster the lyrical content, as little else can be extracted from these tellings other than self-destructive alcoholism (‘Care At All‘) and mental health issues (‘Feelin’ Low‘). Now, neither I or anyone else is owed the full insight into Alex’s personal love life, true, but when you write a record about your own love life, not holding back would make for a stronger artistic expression.
The worst lyrical example here is the self-deprecating ‘Piece Of Shit. Aiming the lyrical mirror at oneself makes for honest music, and this song could’ve been really interesting with more personal qualities and experiences included in Alex’s words. We all know the guy can do it: he proved as much on ‘Home Remedy‘ and ‘Spring Forever‘! But all we get here is that he’s apparently a “piece of shit”, as the song’s chorus drums into your head over and over.
“Well, what makes you think of yourself that way?” I thought to myself after first hearing the song, but then I went and read a recent track-by-track interview with the band over on TheMusic.com. In that article, Alex states that ‘Piece Of Shit‘ started out as a joke, saying: “It was supposed to be a funny, self-deprecating song about meeting someone wonderful, but knowing that you’re not good enough for them.” Yes, ‘Piece Of Shit‘ is a joke song, but not because it’s funny or because it’s ironic. Singing about how you’re “a piece of shit” and how “she just doesn’t know it yet” seems like the easy way out to me.
Also, if you don’t utterly cringe at the lines, “she’s got deep blue eyes/and I don’t cut my hair/she’s got a gorgeous smile, lacey underwear”, then I’ll need to have some harsh words with you. Because Christ, who wrote that shit – Luke from Five Seconds Of Summer? Sure could’ve fooled me!
Lastly, this record isn’t that much of a “hot take”. Nothing Alex sings is that controversial, insightful, nor groundbreaking in terms of discussions about burned-out romances. Of course, that’ll be the charm to some people; that it’s a general and universal tale of love gone awry. Experiences that we’ve all had in our lives – myself included. And hey, I get it. Simplistic lyrics combined with simple music can make for instantly gratifying and easily memorable tunes. But I also feel that runs the real risk of hacking off an album’s emotional weight. Which is the case with ‘A Hot Take On Heartbreak‘.
Columbus seem to be having an identity crisis with ‘A Hot Take On Heartbreak’. Their caught in limbo between where they are currently in Sappy Pop-Rock Land, and where they really seem to want to go in the future with this record’s grungier, ’90s alt-rock moments. Honestly, I’m actually excited to see them go down that latter path in time as there’s real potential for the band to come out of their shells. I just feel that ‘A Hot Take On Heartbreak’ is merely the bridge between these two points, but not a particularly well-built one.
Although, I’m not apart of the pop-punk echo chamber that exists for bands like this, so what the fuck would I know, right?
- Don’t Know How To Act
- Care At All
- Worn Out This Week
- Feelin’ Low
- Give Up
- Woke Up With A Heart Attack
- Piece Of Shit
- Cut It Out
- Difficult Conversations
- Feel This Way
‘A Hot Take On Heartbreak’ is out now via UNFD.