There’s nothing worse for a music obsessive than a disappointing album. A bad one can be easily discarded, but a disappointing one hurts your soul in a way that can never quite be healed.
And Guster’s Look Alive hurts the soul.
There aren’t enough metaphors to describe how lame this album is. It’s as though Phish and The 1975 had a really ugly baby. It’s like someone stuffed the ballot box for the Battle of the Bands with votes for the worst band, Carrie-style. This has to be a joke, right? This is like them playing the theme from Cheers on stage, a little goof and then they’ll release a real album? No, this is it? Whoo-boy.
The title track, “Look Alive,” opens the album on a treacly note and it’s all downhill from there.
Brian Rosenworcel’s usually eccentric percussion feels lazy and ever-so-slightly static, while the turgid eight-bit keyboard lines sound like they were ripped out of a Legend of Zelda dungeon. The electronic overlay that pervades the album makes whole band sounds muffled, as though the microphones were placed outside the studio.
“Don’t Go,” is the standout, a warm, sparkly piece of electric poetry that harkens back to their earlier indie days with longing, romantic patter like “I want hippy love/future sex/5 a.m. French cigarettes.” It’s a gossamer sonic soundscape, minus a key change and a terrible bridge in the bridge but it’s short-lived, thankfully, and soon back to the catchy, confectionary chorus. It is as addictive as a love affair and it’s a goddamn shame that it’s the only such track on the album.
The generosity of “Don’t Go” is quickly squandered by “Hard Times,” a judgmental, old-man-shakes-his-fist-at-cloud song as Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner trade off vocal duties to lament about screens and modern medicine and the system, man, all against percussion so generic that I’m pretty sure it came standard with every 1987 Casio keyboard sold.
Things lighten up by the time we hit “Hello Mr. Sun,” a song that harkens the listener back to one’s college days, as in coming back from class to find your stoner roommate Lance pondering a window crystal and stuffing Cool Ranch Doritos into his gaping maw. “Hello Mr. Sun/you can make a rainbow.” Whoa, that’s like, so deep, man. It’s a lazy exercise in pseudo-psychedelic rock that cribs far too much of its fuzzy guitar from The Beatles “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”
And just as it opens on a melancholy note, it closes on a equal bummer with “Not For Nothing.” Props for consistency, I guess. “We’re born, we die, our stars explode.” Glad we had this conversation, Guster. Even “Summertime,” a song that should be joyful by the implication of its title alone, is a drag, but it’s a high-energy drag, playing with a warm, 70s vibe like so many teeny-tiny man-shorts and knee-high tube socks. It’s a neat trick to jump a decade to the next song, the 80s-infused “Terrified,” with its slick guitars, but as we saw early, any pleasure this album puts forward, it immediately ruins, following up with “Mind Kontrol” a song so monumentally vapid that the C clearly ran screaming from the room, leaving the K to take the fall.
The whole album sounds like it was recorded to be played in an H&M. It’s bland and forgettable, fuzzed with a faux-depth like an Instagram filter. And yet, I caught myself humming “Don’t Go” in the shower. That’s what’s so frustrating about this album—having abandoned their indie roots to embrace a more static, EDM-style of production, Guster is the on-stage incarnation of Steve Buscemi asking “What’s up, my fellow kids?” It’s a joyless slog that sounds like it’s trying too hard to be hip and with it.
Guster should have taken the advice they gave in “Don’t Go”: “Don’t go making something out of nothing.” There’s a whole lot of nothing here. There’s exploring new genres and new sounds, and there’s being lazy and slapping together nine songs so you have something new to tour on. Look, we all get it. Things are a bummer. But the indie sad-boy routine is stale, no matter how many high-top synths you layer over of it.