It says a lot that in a year of unlikely and historic unions – AOL and Huffington Post, Her Majesty the Queen and Ireland, Osama Bin Laden and a bullet in his head – the most surprising and gruesome was an ex-Playboy mannequin’s whirlwind romance with All Time Low guitarist Jack Barakat. Less surprisingly, the relationship didn’t last, however Bakarat was nonetheless able to find time away from Hugh Hefner’s sloppy, sloppy seconds to record a fourth All Time Low record, Dirty Work.
In many ways, Holly Madison is Dirty Work incarnate. If the numerous and well-publicised accounts of Hugh Hefner’s bedroom preferences are to be believed, then Dirty Work is an understatement, but there are other similarities. Much like the average modern-day Playmate, Dirty Work is essentially a manufacturer’s dummy: air-brushed; soulless; custom-built to exacting specifications; aesthetically-pleasing but ultimately empty and devoid of any real distinctive character. At the risk of butchering a metaphor, All Time Low are New Found Glory with grotesque, misaligned implants.
Which is all very unfair on poor Holly Madison. By all accounts (i.e. repeated viewings of The Girls Next Door), she’s a lovely person who inexplicably found herself in love with what can only be described as a very rich iguana. Similarly, there was a time when All Time Low were a genuinely exciting young pop punk band; when the songs were dynamic and Alex Gaskarth’s vocals were merely double-tracked rather than layered and autotuned to fuck.
Dirty Work offers brief glimpses into the vibrant power pop act that the Maryland four-piece used to be. Lead single ‘I Feel Like Dancin’’ recalls those mid-nineties pop-rock acts who made the first tentative steps into hip hop, falling halfway between Third Eye Blind and Sugar Ray with funky guitar riffs, half-rapped vocals and turntable scratching. Even the chorus lyric – “It doesn’t matter where / I don’t care if people stare / I feel like dancin’ tonight” – seems a fairly brave statement for a man to make in the twenty-first century.
‘Time-Bomb’ is a little more abrasive lyrically, but musically it’s more dynamic, building from clipped guitars and understated synths to a richly melodic chorus with a swing factor that’s all too rare on the album. Even so, the chorus lyrics are contrived and overwrought and, worse still, they’re not even grammatically consistent: “It was like a time bomb set into motion / We knew that we were destined to explode / And if I had to pull you out of the wreckage / You know I’m never gonna let you go.”
There are a few more standout moments. ‘Just the Way I’m Not’ is a clear attempt at creating a stadium rock anthem – the guitars are huge, the drums saturated in reverb, and the gang vocals on the chorus come straight out of the Def Leppard playbook. Opener ‘Don’t You Want Me (Dead?)’ is catchy, if a little underwhelming for an opening track, and ‘Forget About It’ rises and falls nicely before ruining everything with a spoken word middle-eight.
The album is very deliberately front-loaded, however, and there is almost nothing of note on the second half of the record. ‘No Idea’ borrows the epic string motif from Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ but doesn’t take it anywhere. ‘That Girl’ is full of the kind of bright, summery guitar chords and vocal harmonies that the Backstreet Boys did it better a decade ago. Spanish guitar-flavoured ‘Return the Favor’ channels Fall Out Boy but lacks Patrick Stump’s vocal panache or Pete Wentz’s lyrical dexterity.
There is nothing deliberately offensive about Dirty Work. For the most part, it seeks actively to avoid offending anybody. The vocals are meticulously processed to the point of blandness, though the choruses are generally so loud that it would be hard to pick out any real character in the singing regardless. The bass player might as well have saved himself the trouble and taken a holiday during the recording sessions. I hear the Playboy Mansion is lovely this time of year.
Like 2009’s Nothing Personal, Dirty Work offers just enough glimpses of the group’s pop acumen to get by. However, by now fans should begin to ask whether just getting by is enough for a group of their stature and popularity.
author: Dave de Sylvia