I don’t like it when critics use the phrase “more of the same” to castigate a band. Here’s the thing: if you used to like an artist and then suddenly don’t like them for doing “more of the same” what you’re really saying is that you’re over that band. Because you used to like the same thing they’re doing now and now you don’t like it. What’s happening is a little thing called the Law of Diminishing Returns – or what I sometimes call The Reason You Only Need to Own One Placebo Album (Sleeping With Ghosts is mine). It’s not that a band you like has gotten worse; it’s that their style no longer does it for you. This can definitely affect your willingness to spend money on their albums or even to take the time to look them up on Spotify.
The first time I listened to Fountains of Wayne’s Sky Full of Holes, I couldn’t tell if I was falling victim to the law of diminishing returns or if something is really different about this new album. Every review I’ve read or heard of this record, including from friends who are long-time fans of Fountains of Wayne (I’m one myself – I logged many hours in college wearing out their self-titled debut and Utopia Parkway), is that it’s just like their 1990s output and that’s either a good or a bad thing, depending on the review. The Onion A.V. Club claims that the “Just like the 90s” tag is a superficial reading of Sky Full of Holes. I don’t necessarily find the album as deep as the A.V. Club does, but I do agree that it’s different from their very strong 90s stuff.
Listen to their first album again – it’s goofy, sure, and dead-simple, but it told you what was up by the end of the second verse of “Radiation Vibe,” when Chris Collingwood sang, “I can still croon/ and make the girls swoon/ isn’t that the way life’s/ supposed to be?” And then there was plenty of electric guitar and crashing drums and, dare I say it, fun. If I believed in guilty pleasures, the first three Fountains of Wayne albums would be guilty pleasures for me, the same way Oasis’s What’s the Story Morning Glory? would be – all of those records make me want to plug in my guitar, crank up the distortion, and bash out fifteen songs in major keys (mostly C and G, thanks).
On the first listen, Sky Full of Holes didn’t feel as, well, electric as its predecessors, though it does sort of maintain Collingwood and cohort Adam Schlesinger’s keen pop sensibility. The tone of the thing struck me as pretty flat at first and I’m sad to say that it still does after five trips through it. I’m interested in the A.V. Club’s assertion that Schlesinger and Collingwood are using the mundane “as a shield,” as if they themselves are trying to hide “real-life worries” behind a decidedly more adult-contemporary sound (contrasted to, say, “Leave the Biker,” which is still a pop song, but it’s got some thump to it). That’s a grim reading of Sky Full of Holes and however accurate it is, it doesn’t make me want to listen to the album again.
The thing is, there’s a difference between using the mundane as a shield from your troubles and using it as a creative crutch. When Collingwood admits “it’s a cliché” on “A Road Song,” I wince. I know what he’s getting at (he adds, “but hey/ that doesn’t make it so wrong”) but Fountains of Wayne used to be better than that. As recently as “Valley Winter Song,” they were able to use cliché in a way that was likable enough to excuse it. Now, they’re excusing themselves and just copping to the cliché and if that’s splitting a few too many hairs for you, you’ll probably like Sky Full of Holes a lot more than I do.
Don’t get me wrong; musically, the album is pleasant enough. But “pleasant enough” isn’t what I want from Fountains of Wayne; it’s what I want from any given CD I hear at my parents’ house where, musically speaking, “pleasant enough” is a surprise – it’s the first Norah Jones record instead of Kenny G or Yanni. I can see where people are getting the notion that Sky Full of Holes is heavily recycling the 1990s for Fountains of Wayne, but this album just sounds so fucking resigned to me. They went from “She’s Got a Problem,” which was a darkly humorous pop song (“She’s got a problem/ and she’s gonna do something dumb”) to “Hate to See You Like This,” which is a maudlin, if properly concerned, pop ballad which urges the featured depressive to “make a little effort.”
Oddly enough, “Hate to See You Like This” is a pretty apt summation of my feelings for Sky Full of Holes. It makes me feel like I’m bearing witness to my generation’s decline into softer sounds, wild nights that end at 10:30, the taking up of tennis or golf as a hobby, serious discussions about the horsepower of our various lawnmowers, and all that stuff that I guess Justin felt about the new Death Cab for Cutie album. It’s not the aging itself that bothers me; it’s the implicit acceptance that our spirits must wane as we go gray. I’m 31 and I know it’s hip to feel old in your thirties, but that’s not me. I doubt I’ll feel that old when I’m forty. Mind you, I plan to age with my dignity intact (for instance, I’m well aware that I have less than a decade left where I can attend concerts alone), but I see no reason why that means the fire has to die until my body does, and that’s especially true of the music I enjoy (before you ask: yes, it is possible for so-called “mellow” music to have some fire in it. Listen to “Picture in a Frame” by Tom Waits and you’ll know what I’m talking about). Sky Full of Holes is, I fear, the soundtrack to a surrender that I don’t see as inevitable at all – the surrender to stillness, to dullness, to that nagging whisper in the back of your mind that says you shouldn’t have another beer because you’re counting calories (I’ll continue to run, thank you, and beer calories be damned) or that you can’t make love because you have to get up early for work tomorrow. I will be damned two, three, and even four times, before I surrender to that voice.